“This Is Modern Art (based on true events)” is a provocative play intended for a “young adult” audience that raises philosophical and political questions that are generating heated discussions among critics and theatergoers of all ages. Steppenwolf Theatre’s new production, written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, tells the story of a crew of graffiti writers who take a big leap and create a “piece” that grabs the attention of the whole city.
Director Lisa Portes deftly orchestrates the four actors in the events that lead up to their big score: a 50-foot mural on the east wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. (The event actually happened in February 2010.)
Two actors stand out in the cast because of the energy and naturalism of their performances. Jerry Mackinnon plays Seven, the smart, charismatic leader of the MUL (Made You Look) crew, and J. Salome Martinez Jr. plays JC, the spiritual, introspective member of the crew. JC delivers a powerful monologue about his love for the city and for the graffers that glorify it with their art. Finally, he says, “I climb steps to the roof and take in the skyline, Hancock to Sears, the city’s lit crooked smile. It is so quiet. I come here to compose my self and when there are no stars, I am comforted by the stars man made. [Beat.] I think I need to hang a star of my own.”
The cast also includes Kelly O’Sullivan as Selena, Seven’s girlfriend and the lookout for the team. Jessie D. Prez plays Dose, the third member of MUL.
The MUL crew carries out their plan and creates their piece, a colorful mural defining modern art in their terms. It gains brief media attention and an immediate attack by the city’s graffiti removal team. Because they fear arrest, the crew disperses. In the final scene, a replica of the “This Is Modern Art” wall is rolled down.
The 85-minute play breaks the fourth wall now and then to tell the history and explain the vagaries of graffiti writing, which involves a lot of “graffer” jargon. Chicago and other major cities have a long history of graffiti writing in public places, both the illegal variety and that done on “permission walls.” From expressways and railroad underpasses to abandoned buildings, graffiti writing is a colorful, vibrant part of urban life.
The set is made up of piped scaffolding the writers climb to write their art, a painted backdrop and a translucent curtain. The set is full of little details. A pair of shoes, tied together by their laces, hangs from pipes above the stage. Each of the various pieces of graffiti that adorn the backdrop and curtains have meaning, if you take the time to look them over carefully.
During a talkback after the opening performance, one person questioned whether the play sends the wrong message to young people about the illegal act of graffiti writing. Several other audience members spoke out forcefully about why they did not agree. The Steppenwolf playbill asks a similar question: Was what happened an act of vandalism or important artistic commentary? The question deserves to be addressed. The script and the characters acknowledge that they are committing an illegal act. But the important message the play articulates is that art shouldn’t be confined to elite galleries and museums with $18 admission tickets. The graffiti writers are artists shouting to be seen and heard. They demand visibility in a society that decrees them invisible–as artists and as individuals.
The writers are playwright and hiphop artist Idris Goodwin and “Louder Than a Bomb” founder Kevin Coval. They have written a pointed and poetic script that is already generating controversy in Chicago theater and education circles. And that’s a good thing.
“This Is Modern Art” runs through March 14, but there are only four more public performances: the next two Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm. School group performances are offered at 10am Tuesday through Friday.
James Brod, a junior at Guerin College Prep in west suburban Chicago, contributed to this article.
This review was previously posted at gapersblock.com/ac/.