Where: Goodman Theatre,
Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through April 28
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Some plays that are part of cycles stand on their own. That’s certainly the case with the works in August Wilson’s 20th Century Cycle, set mostly in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Chicago playwright Ike Holter is frequently compared with Wilson, and his seven-play “Rightlynd Saga,” set between 2011 and 2019 in the city’s fictional 51st ward, is currently culminating with the world premiere of “Lottery Day” at Goodman’s Owen Theatre. Despite the intense direction by Lili-Anne Brown and dedicated acting by an ensemble of ten, the play, which was developed during the 2017 New Stages Festival, left me feeling like I was missing something and wishing I had seen more than one other installment in the cycle.
Most, if not all, of the characters appear in one or another of those plays, which have been staged at storefront theaters ranging from A Red Orchid to Steep. Without having become acquainted with them before, it’s hard to know who they are, how they relate to each other, and why we should care about them.
In “Lottery Day,” they’re assembled for a barbecue in the backyard of mercurial, middle-aged Mallory (J. Nicole Brooks), who is the de facto matriarch of an old neighborhood that is disappearing. The encroaching gentrification is vividly shown by Arnel Sancianco’s set, which features a contemporary concrete house with soaring windows next to Mallory’s little frame home.
The new construction belongs to Vivian (Michele Vasquez) who, we learn, is in the business of buying old buildings for a song, tearing them down, and building new ones to be sold at much higher prices. Mallory hates her and, as it turns out, has more than one reason to do so. But she invites her to the party anyway—and immediately encourages Vivian, a recovering alcoholic to have a drink.
The first to arrive, though, is laid-back Avery (James Vincent Meredith), who is responsible for grilling the two buckets of meat he brings. He obviously loves Mallory, and she him, though he was also the best friend of her dead husband, who was killed in a random shooting along with her daughter. Mallory has a plan to give away a large sum of money related to their deaths, refuses to let anyone mention their names, and the raucous party morphs into a requiem of sorts for them as well as for the neighborhood.
The others on the guest list include would-be rap artist Ezekiel (Tommy Rivera-Vega); car salesman Robinson (Robert Cornelius); Nunley (Tony Santiago), owner of a failing shop being put out of business by the larger Montgomery’s; compulsive talker Ricky (Pat Whalen), former administrator at a shuttered school; and organization freak Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter), artistic director of a little theater company that recently moved into the ‘hood.
The remaining two characters are nice Cassandra (McKenzie Chinn), who arrives with her baby and now lives in Wicker Park, and fierce Zora (Sydney Charles), who uses a cane and clearly has a hard past. These two apparently grew up together in this backyard but haven’t been on speaking terms for some time, because of Zora hurting Cassandra deeply. One of the frustrating aspects of the script is that we never find out what exactly caused the rift (I assume it is in one of the plays I didn’t see), though they decide to call a truce for the night.
Mallory basically pits her guests against each other in a competition for the money, which starts with a treasure hunt and progresses to an insult contest. As everyone gets drunk, high, and angry, the night spirals out of control.
Holter tackles the same themes as in the rest of his saga, among them corruption, crime, and violence, along with gentrification. The insights come in little bursts like fireworks. What’s missing is a coherent, compelling plot. We can sense Mallory’s pain, but we’re always on the outside trying to look in, and her actions remain a mystery.
The almost sentimental nostalgia for the way Rightlynd used to be also is mystifying. Zora sums it up towards the end of the evening. “Every night of my life I went to sleep with the sounds of sirens/And cop cars/ Yelling, hollering, people stumbling home–/That shit told me I was safe./ But here? Now?/….No people, no voices, no sirens, no screams./“Crickets./ Hybrid hubcaps.”/ White Silent Nothing./-That’s how you know../I don’t wanna still hang on/ When the thing I’m trying to save ain’t even there no more.”
Stylistically, Holter combines rap, poetry, song, and some dance with slang-laden street talk. Much of the dialogue is overlapping, often with several characters shouting at once. In an interview in the program, he says he treats the switches among “in-depth conversation, side-chatting, singing, peacocking…like a musical; you don’t always need to hear every piece of lyric as long as the feeling of the emotion is there.”
I respectfully disagree. If Holter bothered to write the words, and these outstanding actors convey them with such emotion, I want to hear every one. Not being able to was very annoying.
Visually, the show fares much better, thanks to Jason Lynch’s lighting and Samantha C. Jones’ costumes, as well as the set.
I don’t know when, or if, anyone will stage the whole “Rightlynd Saga” as a marathon, but if they do, I’ll be there, if for no other reason than to learn more about the characters and the references that I didn’t understand.