One of the most laudable traits of high-school students is their ability to seize upon a compelling notion and run with it. A profound reverence for the truth, whatever they might perceive that truth to be, has yet to be beaten out of them by experience and exhaustion. Perspective is for the olds, a cheap trick employed by parents and other boring authority figures to keep them down.
As most of us learn the hard way, ideals without perspective and values in a vacuum tend to isolate more than liberate, and they are no help when it comes to creating community. Which may explain why each of the characters in Yellowjackets, a new play by Itamar Moses and the first production of the Berkeley Rep's 2008-2009 season, appear to move through the play in his or her own bubble of truth, largely blinkered, until the end, to the problems and perspectives of one another.
The play is set at Berkeley High, whose mascot is the yellowjacket and which happens to sit just a few blocks from Berkeley Rep. Moses, now 30 and a resident of Brooklyn, attended high school there in the early 1990s, at a time when political correctness, as well as its predictable backlash, was in full force. The kids in Yellowjackets are swimming in this PC soup, as they try to make sense of their racial, cultural, and socio-economic identities. The feeling of isolation that Moses creates is palpable, as students and teachers alike in this desegregated school self-segregate, becoming strangers in their own multicultural paradise.
The first half of the play's first act introduces us to 23 students and faculty (played by 11 actors) in a series of rapid-fire, similarly isolated sketches. There's Trevor (Craig Piaget), the terrified and frail freshman, enduring the taunts and threats of tough guy Guillem (Brian Rivera), who takes genuine pleasure in intimidating the easy-to-tease white kid he sits next to in ethnic conflict and cooperation class. We can tell we'll want to keep an eye on these two, but should we also pay close attention to the comical Chinese mathematics teacher Mr. Ling (Kevin Hsieh), who can't control his unruly class? Enjoy him while you can.
Then there's principal Franks (Alex Curtis), his arm in a sling after getting caught in the middle of the strobe-lit fight between a pair of rival gangs that opens the play. Don't concern yourself too much with Franks, but remember Rashid (Lance Gardner), the hard-ass student "cop," and especially his kid brother, Damian (Shoresh Alaudini), who is the object of principal Franks's ire. Rashid is always saving his brother's bacon for one reason or another, and Damian needs a lot of saving.
Cut to Ms. Robbins (Jahmela Biggs), a stern faculty member who feels it is her duty to inform her class that their school paper, The Jacket, has just published material that she believes to be racist. Next up is Mr. Behzad (Brian Rivera again), whose agenda includes pushing Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax) to drum up publicity for his assembly on Latin American studies, which he believes to be critical to his students' education even if the Spanish-speaking students in his class believe he's wasting their time.
At least Moses is now steering us in the direction of something, and that something would be The Jacket (Alexa is the paper's photo editor), where we meet the insufferably earnest Avi (Ben Freeman), who is finally getting his shot as editor, much to the consternation of Gwen (Adrienne Papp), who was passed over for the post despite having a more exquisitely ruthless mind. As Avi addresses his staff, nostalgically recalling the glory days of 1991, when the paper's editor left the front page blank as a protest against the Gulf War, Sammy (Kevin Hsieh again) pays close attention out of a desire to turn his minor sports-writing gig into something significant. Other students heckle him, tossing balled up pieces of paper his way, while his best friend Ryan (Alex Curtis again) lays on his back, pipe in hand, and proceeds to get totally and awesomely baked.
And that's not even everyone. One of my favorite bit players in Yellowjackets is goth-girl Sarine (Erika Salazar), whose petite stature belies her anything-but-mousy spirit. Tamika (Jahmela Biggs again) is also a treat, especially in her scenes with Damian, who is even more of a source of frustration to her than the school administration, which, despite an agreement she had with a recently departed staff member, has informed her that she is one credit short of graduating. While some students are just trying to graduate, others like Gwen are preoccupied with Berkeley High's most imposing neighbor, Cal -- when her mock-trial partner James (Lance Gardner again) is accepted to UC before she is, the devastation and sense of injustice visibly flows from her, and we realize what a monkey Cal must be on the backs of at least some of Berkeley High's students.
Although the rush of entrances and exits prevents us from getting to know most of the characters very well, a few performances stand out. Craig Piaget convinced me that Trevor was totally out of his element, the kid everybody picks on and who with each passing day descends deeper into a paralysis of paranoia and fear rather than becoming stronger for the experience. So convincing was his performance as Trevor that I could not quite believe that he also played the glib, self-absorbed Mr. Terrence, The Jacket's irresponsible faculty advisor. Brian Rivera also works hard, bouncing from tough Guillem to tougher Officer Sanchez to dogmatic and melodramatic Mr. Behzad. Shoresh Alaudini's Damian is riveting, as is Adrienne Papp's Gwen. Another character worthy of note is the high school itself, represented by Annie Smart's fine set -- its chain-link fence, mural wall, and modest-but-effective rows of lockers conjures a time and place that is both realistic and abstract.
By comparison, this young play (commissioned by Berkeley Rep) is still finding itself. At times the characters speak of their situations and stations in life -- their perceptions of the truth -- with eloquence, but too often Moses appears to suffer from the same ailment as his high schoolers, namely, the inability to see how these individual epiphanies fit into a larger whole. Unable to create a fictional resolution that might have improved upon his experiences at Berkeley High, Moses instead crafts his characters' epiphanies so that they lead straight to, and only to, personal redemption, which by any measure seems too easy a solution.
I don't mean to suggest that I would have preferred to sit back and gawk as the lives of these characters, who we become quite fond of over the course of several hours, deteriorate just for the sake of gritty realism, but the truths that Moses has them grapple with (Guillem learns that everyone, even Trevor, has a right to his or her humanity; Avi finally realizes that mediating expression can be used as a club to keep people down; Damian goes all soft when he discovers that grace happens) feel pretty saccharine. If Moses is not careful, he may find himself fending off offers from Disney to turn his coming-of-age drama into their next high school musical.
Yellowjackets runs through October 10, 2008 at Berkeley Rep. For tickets andinformation visit berkeleyrep.org.