Arts Listings

Berkeley Rep Stages Itamar Moses’ ‘Yellowjackets’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:39:00 AM

“The initial idea I had for the play,” said Itamar Moses, a 1995 Berkeley High graduate and emerging playwright, of Yellowjacket, his play commissioned by Berkeley Rep that opens Friday, “was about what I did in school, hiding in the newspaper office. A simpler play, about the paper. I thought there probably was a play there. 

“Then talking to Tony [Taccone, artistic director of The Rep], say three years ago, about the commission, and the four or five ideas I wanted to write next, I mentioned Berkeley High School, and he said, ‘Why not for us?’ ” 

Moses’ play, named after the sports teams at Berkeley High (just as the paper, which he edited, is called The Jacket), deals with the upshot of an event he remembers, an insensitive article published in the paper and the controversy that followed, dividing students, parents and teachers along race and class lines. “The inciting incident was a fight on campus and the coverage the newspaper gave it ... Living in, growing up in Berkeley, it’s really, really easy to have all the appropriate liberal ideals, to espouse them and think you uphold them—until events personally affect you, or your children, putting your loved ones on the line for progressive ideals. More specifically, for people who came here in the ’60s, living in the hills, how do you react if your kid’s physically assaulted?” 

Instead of the simpler play, about the newspaper, Moses began taking notes, writing speeches, scenes. “I didn’t know what it would become. It was capturing the multifaceted insanity, from the ironic reversals that took place, a well-intentioned newspaper story backfiring, not responding to racism meaningfully, being superficial instead. What began to emerge was the central metaphor, the debate at the center. Aristotle would have jumped at it. There was a built-in dramatic structure, not as rigid as in [his earlier play] Bach in Leipzig, which was based on my noticing that a tight farcical structure is fugue-like, but more like an epic structure. Something in the way of Angels in America or half of Continental Divide. What makes epics isn’t that they’re long, but that the characters don’t necessarily meet each other, but are still connected. I was running different stories about school together, noticing the analogies, mirroring what everybody was talking about. It occurred to me the play could be tracked, just like history classes that were created as I was on my way out of school were tracked. This was all at the center, in the bones of the structure, underscoring the ideas debated. It took me a couple years to execute that—sort of!” 

Madeleine Oldham, The Rep’s literary manager and dramaturg, commented on her reactions to the script in its successive drafts. “I don’t think Itamar’s intention shifted at all. It wasn’t like the writing I usually see. It was made up of short scenes, feeling like an HBO show, yet amazingly complicated. It moves in the way high school moves, teenagers move. I think it’s great writing—and good for high school students.” 

Moses joked, “Like Berkeley High, it’s messy, chaotic ... someone from one scene will just walk through another. But even messiness can be kind of formal, have rigor—if it’s organized messiness.” 

One of the cast (and almost all are from the Bay Area, several who lived in Berkeley), Amaya Alonso Hallifax, grew up in Berkeley, attending Oxford, Longfellow and Crowden Schools, going to high school in the North Bay—“but took the tour of Berkeley High almost every year, thinking I might transfer.” She commented that the play “is incredibly representative of the stories I heard about it all, from my group of friends—who are pretty wide-ranging racially and socio-economically—and it contains the opposing points of view inside. Growing up in Berkeley you’re always hyperaware problems exist. I was aware from the age of six of the legacy of Civil Rights; you hear the rhetoric your whole life. Then you get into high school, begin to deal with the realities of your life, and it’s not the ’60s, a different atmosphere. You’ve heard the talk, but what walk? And the adults around you don’t necessarily understand.” 

Hallifax continued about the play. “All my friends love talking about it. They’ve been lovely with yearbooks and remembering inappropriate stories ... the aberrative stuff, but also a teacher who was important to them. There are a lot of really recognizable stories about teachers in the play.” 

“Some iconic Berkeley High legends went into this play,” Moses said. 

Moses left Berkeley two weeks after he finished high school, attending Yale and New York University, at both of which he later taught playwrighting. He lives in Brooklyn. If Madeleine Oldham remembers coming to Berkeley from back East “and being slapped in the face ... by how it’s everything you think it is, and more complicted than just that,” and now feels at home here, Moses can talk about “without moving back here, writing Yellowjacket is a figurative way of going back ... there’s a conversation at the end of the play—Amaya’s in it—that says, ‘You don’t have to stay, it’s where the fuck you’re from.’ It doesn’t feel that long ago, doesn’t feel like a period piece, as Tony’s described it. I wanted to show the play to Berkeley, to make it hyperspeculative and fun; universal, but something so young people feel it accurately represents their perspective. I feel I had a clearer-eyed view when I was a teenager. And I still think adults can be short-sighted. 

“It’s not just Berkeley, it’s true everywhere,” Moses concluded. “Berkeley’s a great place to look at. People talk about it. And here they think they can solve it. Does the play have a life outside Berkeley? In a weird way, Berkeley is the least equipped to see it; it’s where it’ll be seen most literally, judged as how factually accurate it is. Elsewhere, it’ll be seen as a metaphor, Berkeley as a symbol—any urban high school as a microcosm of society.” 


Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 12 at the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St. $27-$71. 647-2949.