Seeing This Is Modern Art with a house full of field-tripping high school students on Thursday morning was, in some ways, like every student matinee I've ever experienced, including those in which I was a performer a decade ago, and those two decades ago for which I was part of the high-school audience myself. There was a hint of restlessness in the crowd born of the sheer fact of being off school grounds, and some of the most audible reactions were the fake-scandalized ooooooooohhhs reserved for moments of romance between the male and female leads.
But this latest production from Steppenwolf for Young Adults, co-written by playwright Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval of Young Chicago Authors and youth-poetry incubator Louder Than a Bomb, struck me as holding the kids' attention with even greater raptness than other shows I've seen with student audiences at Steppenwolf over the years, such as The Bluest Eye or The Elephant Man. The excellent SYA programming almost never comes across as pandering or preaching to its audience. But in Goodwin and Coval's portrait of a fictional crew of Chicago graffiti writers to whom the play assigns the real-life 2010 tagging of an outside wall of the Art Institute's Modern Wing, This Is Modern Art presents its teen viewers with characters with whom they could share both their shoes and their steps.
I saw the show several days after its official press opening, and I won't pretend I haven't noted that some earlier reviews of the show have approached it from a hard moralistic point of view about graffiti and street art, and whether the play glamorizes this subculture too much. To my mind, the fact that defacing the property of others is against the law doesn't need to be spelled out to Chicago teenagers, though I'd say the play makes that quite clear, while also addressing the costs and potential consequences of graffiti to a satisfactory degree.
This is a piece about the overwhelming urge not just to create art, but to get it seen—if only by a scant few before the sandblasters come along. In Lisa Portes's stylish, extremely well-acted production, featuring strong design work from Brian Sidney Bembridge's sets to Liviu Pasare's projections to Thomas Dixon's sounds, the MUL (Made You Look) crew's ultimate objective is recognition, even though they remain anonymous and their personal relationships suffer for it.
That's a powerful message to deliver to crowds of kids who might feel like they're not being heard. And it should hardly be controversial; one of the first parallels that sprang to my aging mind was the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume, in which teen rebel Christian Slater starts an illegal pirate radio station.
Parts of that movie's script no doubt sounded as instantly dated as Goodwin and Coval's dialogue occasionally does in This Is Modern Art. (The playwrights almost certainly interact with modern teens more than I do, but some of their slang comes across as artificial in the mouths of the generally excellent Jerry MacKinnon, Kelly O'Sullivan, J. Salomé Martinez Jr. and Jessie D. Prez.)
But my takeaway—that a balance between outlets for self-expression and damage to yourself and others is worth fighting for—is one worth weaving into lesson plans everywhere.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval. Directed by Lisa Portes. With Brittani Arlandis Green, Jerry MacKinnon, J. Salomé Martinez Jr., Kelly O'Sullivan, Jessie D. Prez, Chris Rickett. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.