“It’s all about the vocab, you gots to have vocab.” - Jurassic 5
Brent thought the play should be named 'Lifted'. At the time--my senior year at Northwestern--I had never heard this word used in the sense that would have made it the perfect title (verb, stolen) as well as a poignant pun (verb, elevated; inspired), a contranym. He was probably right. So much so that I now misremember the title of the piece as 'Lifted' when, in fact, we settled on SLAMMED ("I feel like as the playwright I have to understand any puns in my title," I'd said).
Brent Hazelton was (and is!) the associate artistic director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and I had an excellent experience with him and the theater. A couple of days, I took off from class (or maybe just didn't have it--I'd worked ahead and crafted a pretty light senior year for myself) and drove my roommate's car into the next state over, past the signs for the Cheese Palace, and into the city to meet with Brent to brainstorm, outline, discuss the next draft, or tour me around the neighborhoods and balk at my never having had Kopp's custard or listened to De La Soul. He was right again: I hadn't lived! While the Esperanza Unida building was the major local reference that made it into the play, it's always important to me feel I have a foundation of research. I also did some digging into the world of taggers (hi, messageboards) and consulted with a classmate of mine known for slam performances.
My Creative Drama classmate, Alvaro (Saar Rios--look him and his amazing play Luchadora up. Go on, now. Do it!) had recommended me for this opportunity to create an original, touring one act for young audiences that would resonate with the theater's mainstage, August Wilson's Radio Golf. Alvaro was a graduate student, so Brent introduced me as the same to the company of actors when I first came to lead some exercises, discuss, and brainstorm. I'll never forget--after those busy, playful hours passed and the company headed home--feeling I must correct him in private, bracing myself in case being a graduate student was a necessary qualification. Brent blinked and said, "Okay. So, You were the youngest person in that room. Okay!" He was surprised (impressed? I hoped), but his respect didn't flinch.
Meetings in the central board room of the Rep crackled with the kind of technical conversations I love to have about plays, by which I mean we were making cause and effect maps and plot pyramids on the whiteboard. I don't always need this step but I love the clarity it provides, especially when you realize you've patterned it better than you thought or that your B plot has the solution to your A plot's snag. Victory!
What resulted was a three-actor show about two students and their principal as their underfunded school had to grapple with the opportunities and consequences of corporate sponsorship. Kavyala, a tagger, loves the neighborhood school that Gabriel, a recent elite Catholic school transfer and debate champion whose family has fallen on hard times, disparages upon arrival. When their well-meaning Principal banks a corporate sponsorship with LIFT energy drinks, changes come fast. Soon, Kavyala is leaning into the opportunities the sponsorship could provide to leave the neighborhood while Gabriel is falling in love with his school's roots just as they’re about to be paved over by the sorts of improvements he once sought out. SLAMMED asks, when you follow the money, what do you leave behind? Can money buy opportunity, or does it just make you sell out? And is anything more valuable to you than coin?
I was able to accompany the actors and director to a performance of the show in a public high school during its run. I mostly remember the students' response to the bumper music--they went from being quiet during scenes to nodding along with the clips of radio hip-hop (“Live Your Life” by T.I. and Rhianna especially) then settled back in for the next scene. Though I couldn't help feeling they wanted to get one more chorus on each song in, they seemed attentive and were one of my largest audiences yet.
A common criticism of my work is that I write teenagers "too smart". Usually adults say this, insisting they are honestly reporting based on their own teen experience and not some prejudice against The Younger Generation. I wish I'd had a bit more time with these students to address that question. Nonetheless...
Reading the play now, I'm really pleased with it--especially the word play within the slam poetry pieces that gives it its title. In a neat twist, a TYA course at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has had it on their syllabus for several semesters now. I hope the students find reading the script as uplifting (see what I did there?) as my experience was writing it for the Rep while I was still a student myself.