Nothing about this past year has been normal. (You’re welcome for that insightful news flash!) But for theater in Chicago, one of the constants every January is the Young Playwrights Festival with Pegasus Theatre Chicago, which opens the first week of the year and highlights three one-act plays crafted by students in Chicago-area high schools. The symmetry for the festival (headed up by Pegasus’s executive producing director, Ilesa Duncan) has always been pleasing to me at least: new year, new voices.
The three writers selected this year—Jake Florell, Lincoln Gaw, and Aisha Ziad—created pieces that are all quite different in tone. But at their core, all three plays are about wrestling with a mystery or a secret.
The festival, opening Thursday, takes place online this year, with recorded streaming productions of the plays available on a ticketed basis. But in talking to the three writers for this 34th installment, it’s clear that though they might not have the full experience of past YPF winners in seeing their work realized live on stage, they still got a thrill from the process of seeing their plays developed with professional directors and actors.
Two of the plays—Florell’s These Glass Lives and Gaw’s Containment—deal in some way with subjects that have dominated the year’s headlines. Florell’s piece looks at criminal justice and punishment in Black communities through the lens of two Black men, Young and Sir. The former has broken into the home of the latter seeking escape from the police, who are chasing him. Through tense dialogue—and a plot twist—Florell unveils the generational conflicts and similarities between the men.
Florell was a finalist in a past YPF competition and decided to retake a drama class at Kenwood just to enter again. (He graduated from Kenwood this spring and is now taking a year off before college.) Though he says he usually writes backwards from the endings of his plays, he knew going into These Glass Lives (directed by Duncan) that “I definitely just wanted to humanize who is deemed as a criminal, or someone who creates chaos or whatever,” adding, “I’ve been subjected to certain injustices, being biracial.”
Florell also notes, “I hate cop dramas on TV. It’s propaganda, I feel like. I love TV and film, so when I was younger I used to watch it and I thought it was actually entertaining and ‘this is good.’ It took me a while to realize ‘this is not real life, but it’s being portrayed as real life.'”
By contrast with Florell’s gritty tale, Gaw’s piece (directed by Alex Levy) is an absurdist riff in which two hapless CDC agents try to stop the spread of a pernicious infectious condition: the state of Ohio, which is taking over other states. But despite the obvious echoes with the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaw actually wrote the bulk of his play (the first he’s ever attempted) before the shutdown.
Gaw notes that the class assignment at Lane Tech (he graduated this past year and is now enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg) asked the students to draw upon a tradition in Greek and Roman comedy “where you make something weird about reality and then make it like a law. And the comedy comes from that.” In Containment, the agents confront the “Ohio overlord,” who is bent on remaking all of America in the image of the Buckeye state. Elvis shows up as a sort of spirit guide for the agents.
Though he’d never written a play before, Gaw notes, “I’ve done some D and D campaigns with my friends. So I thought, ‘Crap, I’ll just write it like that.'” He also drew upon The Wizard of Oz and Lost in Space for inspiration, two other worlds where “you just wander around and you see weird stuff.” And he maintains, “I actually don’t have anything particularly against Ohio.”
For Ziad, writing A Lady’s Facade gave her a chance to delve into the background of one of her favorite paintings: the Mona Lisa. Ziad, who is currently a senior at University of Chicago Laboratory School, took that fascination and ran with it when she got a writing prompt in her English class to “take something from history and turn it into a play.”
In Ziad’s play (directed by Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke), Hayley, who has just lost her job as a curator at a museum, presses on with solving the mystery of who the woman behind the enigmatic smile might actually have been. Intertwined with the contemporary scenes are flashbacks to Leonardo and his subject—who is decidedly less passive than her famous image suggests.
“Everyone’s always thought of Mona Lisa to be some nice person, timid, shy, because her smile is shy,” says Ziad. “I wanted to surprise people and come up with something that is completely different than what they originally thought about the Mona Lisa.” Ziad, who has been writing most of her life and also enjoys acting, notes that being involved with the auditions (which were conducted remotely) was “one of the coolest things ever, just to have someone else read your words and express them in their own way. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
But maybe not: all three of the YPF winners plan to continue writing in the future, thanks in part to the encouragement and support they received from the festival. Says Florell, who also sat in on auditions for his piece, “I want to direct in the future, not theater per se, but hopefully film. And just sitting in on that process—it’s knowledge and knowledge is power. We got diamonds in this rough.” v