Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Last chance: Prep at Pillsbury House

Pillsbury House Theatre is presenting a terrific production of Prep, a new play commissioned by the theater with the support of a Joyce Award. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson's previous play, Buzzer, was co-commissioned by Pillsbury House and had its New York debut this spring at the Public Theater.

Wilson sets the story in a city prep school, where a white principal (Jodi Kellogg) does her best for her students (who she optimistically refers to as "scholars") in spite of the odds against them. The other two characters are two of her students, Chris (Kory LaQuess Pullam), and Oliver (Ryan Colbert). Rather than playing multiple roles, as many small-cast plays would require, the three characters interact with others via recorded voices, some of professional actors affiliated with the theater, and many students from Washburn and South High Schools. It's a clever device that allows for a number of voices, and it's not overused.

Reminiscent of Marcus Gardley's The Gospel of Lovingkindness, produced just a few months ago at Pillsbury House, the story deals with the effects of violence on young black men and those around them. However, while Gospel focused on the victim and perpetrator of a shooting, the characters in Prep are coping with the impact that violence has on the students' day-to-day lives. After one of their friends is shot and killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Chris and Oliver's lives change. It's now a year later, and Chris, known as "Rev" has fashioned himself into a model student while Oliver has gotten involved with a rougher group of friends. Calling them a gang would be falling into the trap of many of the adults that come in contact with these young men, where just naming something gang violence can itself beget violence.
Ryan Colbert, Kory LaQuess Pullam, and Jodi Kellogg in Prep.

As Oliver and Chris try to reconnect, they deal with parents, friends, girls, and a field trip to a neighboring school that is meant to be inspirational, but has the opposite effect. None of the characters are as simple as they seems, and it's clear that the problem of institutional racism in schools and society has far-reaching implications even for those not directly impacted by violence.

Wilson packs a lot of content into a tight 70-minute show with no intermission, but it doesn't feel rushed. In fact, the language is quite poetic, with abundant internal rhymes, particularly in each characters monologues. The actors and director Noёl Raymond keep the rhythm just a notch elevated from normal speech without becoming sing-songy.

All three actors are wonderful. It's delightful to see Jodi Kellogg on stage again after a "stage retirement" we hope was only temporary. Her principal is hopeful for her students, but bluntly realistic about the challenges the world presents to them. Ryan Colbert and Kory LaQuess Pullam, both engaging, charismatic young actors seen in the Guthrie's production of Choir Boy, create wonderfully rounded characters, too. Colbert's Oliver shows both the tough-talking kid he is with his new friends and the sensitive soul beneath the bluster. LaQuess Pullam handle's Chris's sometimes surprising revelations with an almost frightening conviction.

Pillsbury House has just extended the run by a week, so you can still catch Prep through October 25. If you do, you will experience a whole range of emotions in a short time and be left with plenty of food for thought.