Arts Listings

‘Yellowjackets’ Debuts at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

“C’mon, man. I’m just playin’. I ain’t got no knife!” Yellowjackets, set at Berkeley High, opens on the Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage with two students at their desks, side by side, at the beginning of the school year, with Annie Smart’s set of a frieze of a slave from antiquity, blowing a clarion, and much-tagged murals above a cyclone fence, with lockers to the side. 

The bigger student (Guillem, played by Brian Rivera) asks the other’s name. “Trevor,” he says (Craig Piaget). “What kind of name is that?” And the hazing begins, with Guillem writing Trevor’s name on the desk, teasing him (Trevor nervous over being blamed for vandalism), finally—after some exaggerated, ambiguous threats—opening his hand to show a tagging pen instead of a blade. 

The sardonic odd couple never really come to grips with each other, setting off a periodic, minor flurry of incidents which underscore the main event and its repercussions in Itamar Moses’ new play, commissioned by The Rep and performed by a bright cast of younger local performers, many of whom were raised or schooled in Berkeley, directed by Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone. 

The core incident of Yellowjackets, the Berkeley High team name, is two-fold and based on events when Moses attended there during the mid-’90s. A clash on campus (here a stroboscopically lit brawl between on and off-campus opponents, in which an administrator, trying to break it up, gets a broken arm instead) is reported in the student newspaper (The Jacket). The story is harshly criticized as insensitive by faculty members, who organize a boycott of the paper. The drama develops (with a considerable amount of humor) as Jacket staffers are caught in the middle and air or act out their own beefs, while other students (some of them actors in or witnesses to the incident), parents and faculty members navigate through the ever-more treacherous maze of reactions, repercussions and misunderstandings that turn an open campus into a closed one, bringing to light—and often twisting—dormant attitudes which set liberal-minded characters at odds with members of the minorities they thought they favored. Strife bursts out both openly in groups or in quiet, personal conversations that escalate into fierce debate, derogation, denial. 

Yellowjackets is episodic; the string of scenes snakes around, and frays a little. Its free, modular form embodies the quick, energetic (or slower, more morose) incidents in the teenagers’ lives, how they’re elliptically related—and, ironically, how school dices them up into seemingly discrete segments. Moses has said he wanted to write something like an epic, and Yellowjackets has something of that torrential quality, a rush of actions in which a number of tableaux stand out, emblematically, like the “playful” hazing scene at the top, or when brawler Damian (Shoresh Alaudini, in an exceptional performance) is grilled by the hurt administrator (Alex Curtis as Mr. Franks) and his own brother (Lance Gardner, who finely renders Rashid’s character), a campus security officer, later revealed to have destroyed copies of Huckleberry Finn while a student. 

(It’s no mistake that Moses chose Mark Twain’s masterpiece as an unseen realia—an object that occasions dramatic action, like Yorick’s skull or the swords and poisoned cup in Hamlet. Besides being the focus of the ongoing controversy over the role of race and inflammatory language in the book, Huck Finn is the American epic of youth adrift in the deadly contradictions of an adult world.)  

Moses has put both heart and soul into the play, and yet kept true authorial distance, remarkable in that he was Jacket editor at the time of the original incident and controversial story about it, leaving the Bay Area immediately after graduation. He strives to both unleash and yet dramatically harness all the energies, all the contradictions, implicit and explicit, around a situation which served as a watershed for a school that mirrored a community, which in turn reflected the struggles of society at large.  

It’s exhaustive, maybe dragged out, maybe needing cutting or rewriting before finding its ideal form—and maybe troubled by a kind of media feedback, dogged by an unwitting echo in certain respects from cable TV movies or miniseries.  

But, before anything else, Yellowjackets presents itself both boldly and intimately, and it’s very watchable (another media-coined word, alas!). Its triumph in its Rep staging is shared by the playwright and the 11-member cast with the theater that commissioned it, the cast doubling in playing both students and adults with extraordinary verve and commitment.  

On opening night, there was laughter and excited talk afterwards among Berkeley High alumni about the portraits—or caricatures—of teachers, especially. “Some real icons appear in the play,” Moses has said. Shoresh Alaudini, Jahmela Biggs, Alex Curtis, Ben Freeman, Lance Gardner, Amaya Alonso Hallifax, Kevin Hsieh, Adrienne Papp, Craig Piaget, Brian Rivera and Erika Salazar each deserve special mention, but even more so as an ensemble. 

It concludes uncompromisingly, yet poignantly, without nostalgia. Jacket editor Avi (Ben Freeman as Moses’ cognate), talking about leaving it all behind, is told by his visuals editor and sometime girlfriend Alexa, “You don’t have to stay here, but wherever you go, this’s where you’re fucking from!” Later, Damian, who’s slugged Avi in a quick, “blind” incident (the two don’t know each other), asks him his name—and then says, desultorily, “So, Avi, what now?”—as the lights go down. 


Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 12 at  

Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. $27-$71.