Urban play bucks stereotypes with complex characters
|Teatro Vista presents|
Review by Keith Ecker
When you hear "urban" to describe a play, what comes to mind? Race? Class? Cheesy poetic dialogue? A script filled with Quentin Tarantino moments where gangsters speak in curse-heavy street lingo? Suitcases full of drugs? Antagonistic authority figures? Vague references to "life on the street?" Bad rap scenes? Machismo? Testosterone? Rage?
The point I’m making is that these days, qualifying a dramatic work as "urban" usually means you’ll see a contrived piece of theatre that explores well-trodden, contemporary issues in a haphazard way so as to illuminate nothing we don’t already know. They are bland. They are not thought-provoking. They rely on our media-influenced expectations of the urban experience rather than capturing the humanity that rests at the center of the urban experience. (For an example of precisely what I’m talking about, see my previously reviewed Riff Raff).
Teatro Vista‘s production of Momma’s Boyz soars above and beyond this vulgar pandering sort of urban drama and reveals to us a world of relatable and humane characters thrown into a vicious and cruel world. Sure, it retains certain urban conventions, including drug dealing, gangs and references to the ubiquity of violence. But the environment never consumes the heart of the play, a heart that is composed of three chambers: Thug (Jesse David), Shine (Marvin Quijada) and Mimic (Steve Casillas).
Through these three characters, we don’t just see what it is to live life in the ghetto with its gangbanging and drug dealing. We see a complex tapestry of individual psychologies, and we witness its unraveling as personalities collide catalyzed by the impoverished surroundings.
The story is told in reverse chronology, so we begin at the end with Shine dead at the hands of Thug. Mimic looks over Shine’s body as Shine’s spirit wanders freely, acting and reacting to his friend’s heartfelt words. It’s a powerful opening scene that accurately sets the tone for the rest of the play. We then find out that Thug is locked up and awaiting trial for Shine’s murder. Mimic visits Thug, who threatens to peg him as an accomplice if he doesn’t agree to Thug’s cockamamie defense.
As we continue to flash back, a funny thing happens. The judgments we may have reserved for these characters—all three drug dealers to some extent—give way to sympathy and compassion. That’s not to say the play tries to excuse Thug’s violent act or Shine’s macho pride. But it does explain it, shedding light on a lifetime’s worth of insecurities and frustrations that would eventually lead to one friend pulling the trigger on another.
Playwright Cándido Tirado has a gift for treading the line between drama and comedy. The play’s three men are constantly playing pranks on one another, which lends to the believability of their brotherly love. These moments of levity enhance the impact of the tragedy. There’s also an overarching element of magical realism to the story wherein Mimic has a gift for premonitions, a device that Tirado uses to bookend the play.
All three actors are enthralling to watch. Casillas, as the central figure, is stunning from the top as he delivers an impressive and lengthy monologue about his dead friend. I cannot believe he is still a senior at Columbia College. He has the acting chops of a seasoned performer. Meanwhile, David shows off his range revealing the insecure, approval seeker that rests at the center of tough guy Thug. And Quijada as Shine gets his turn in the spotlight during two parallel monologues, one in which he talks to God and the other in which he’s asked to speak to a gang leader.
Director Ricardo Gutierrez moves the play along at a swift place. He wisely utilizes an interesting mix of set design and lighting between scene transitions and to denote the leaps the story makes back in time. It adds a captivating visual element to this already engrossing work.
Momma’s Boyz is a triumph of the urban theatre genre. It is bold without being brash. It is emotional without being maudlin. It uses conventions like reverse chronology and magical realism without making one think of “Pulp Fiction”. Teatro Vista has produced one of the best plays of the year.
Momma’s Boyz continues through December 4th at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20-$30, and are available by phone (312-666-4659) or online at brownpapertickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TeatroVista.org.
All photos by E. Torres
behind the scenes
Ricardo Gutierrez (director), Regina Garcia (set), Christine Pascual (costumes), Mikhail Fiksel (sound), Mac Vaughey (lights), Ashley Ozment (props), David Woolley (fight choreographer), Dana Nestrick (stage manager), Pat Fries (production manager), E. Torres (photos)