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When these seven slam poets battle it out, Chicago audiences are the real winners.
For some time now, the vaunted “we say it to their faces” Chicago style of theatre has really been shorthand for “middle-aged white people yelling at each other.” And while that might have seemed pretty radical 30 years ago, in 2016 the “Chicago style” either has to evolve, or it has to die.
Here’s the good news: That evolution is well under way. If you want proof, just head up to the Broadway Armory and sit your ass down for Kristiana Rae Colón’s Octagon, in its scorching U.S. premiere from director-to-watch Tara Branham. Though Colón is a Chicagoan, her play had its premiere in London in 2015. But Octagon is Chicago style for a new generation: one that’s younger, more diverse, and woke as hell.
The subject at hand is something with which many of this generation will be familiar: slam. The play follows seven slam poets as they jockey for a shot at nationals. Three of the poets, Chimney (Mykelle Deville), Palace (Eric Gerard) and Chad (Will Kiley), have a four-person group with a guaranteed spot—they just need a fourth person. With the help of poet-turned-barkeep, The Watcher Named Pen (Sydney Charles), the boys hold an open competition to find one.
That competition, between 4 other poets—Tide (Travis Delgado), Atticus (Ryan Hallahan), Prism (Kiki Layne) and Jericho (Tina Munoz Pandya)—forms the backbone of the play’s first act. As with any group that intermingles friendship and sex with competition, there are complications—most of them forming around Prism, the play’s central figure, who Colón uses to endlessly refract both the male gaze and feminine sexuality. That Layne’s powerful performance does the character justice is itself a feat.
Octagon’s real power lies in—what else? Its poetry. Put simply: This show bleeds. It’s a play that bleeds into poems and it’s a poem that bleeds off the stage. It’s about bleeding hearts and bleeding bodies, politics bleeding into personal life and personal life bleeding into damn near everything. Branham’s direction is masterful, both unleashed and controlled, making sure we feel Colón’s every cut.
Octagon says it to your face, all right. Thank God it’s saying something new.
Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway Armory Park. By Kristiana Rae Colón. Directed by Tara Branham. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.