By Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval; Directed by Jessica Burr
Produced by Blessed Unrest
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.23.18
Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, 83 East 4th Street
by Charlotte Arnoux on 6.10.18
Shakur Tolliver, Andrew Gonzalez, and Landon G. Woodson in This is Modern Art. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: A look at a crew of graffiti artists on the streets of Chicago, This is Modern Art examines the lack of recognition of those doing the “writing” on the wall.
In This is Modern Art, presented by Blessed Unrest and written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, we are in Chicago, chillin’ with Seven, JC, and Dose — the LOH (Look Over Here) Crew. Selena, Seven’s girlfriend, is the designated lookout. The de facto leader, Seven yearns to spread his wings and live out his full potential. He feels “boxed in a ghetto” and wants recognition for the art he creates. His ambition comes to a head when, at a party, he stumbles into a conversation with Rhonda, an art student who sings the praises of the brand new Modern Art Wing at the Art Institute. She feels the Wing is “refreshing” and sounds relieved that the canonical works of “modern” artists are finally getting a home in the Chicago art scene. Seven is incensed by Rhonda’s comments: how can she not see who’s missing from her list of beloved modern artists? Does graffiti have no place next to Kandinsky? Energized and motivated, Seven recruits his crew to prove his point.
As Seven, Shakur Tolliver's earnestness and charm make him a fitting leading man. Landon G. Woodson, playing Dose, pulls off the “fool” character in the trio, and Andrew Gonzalez shines as the wise and wily J.C., whose monologues about the steps that led him to this life emerge as the highlight of the script and are performed with grit and heart. Together, the LOH Crew will create a masterpiece on the outside wall of the Modern Art wing. (This plot point is inspired by real events when, in 2010, a group of graffiti artists erected a 50-foot piece along the exterior of the Modern Wing.) On a snowy night (realized beautifully with a disco-ball snowstorm by Miriam Nilofa Crowe), the plan goes swimmingly. This is in part thanks to the lookout skills of Selena (Nancy McArthur), who also provides the transportation. It is worth mentioning that this is pretty much all that Selena does in the play. In an irony that doesn’t sit right, Selena is, quite literally, a vehicle for the men’s arcs. McArthur's abilities are clear, but her character is insultingly underwritten.
Gender politics aside, the LOH crew’s piece is majestic. (The actual art was created by Brooklyn street art legend KEO XMEN, who gave a gripping talkback after the performance.) The creation of the piece happens before our eyes in an instance of stagecraft that is well executed by director Jessica Burr and cast—it stands out as the high point of the play. Their masterpiece achieved, the crew sit back and await the backlash with both fear and anticipation. Will they be made to suffer the consequences of their vandalism or will they be celebrated by the art community?
This is where the play takes a turn for the worse. In a jarring jump in time, Seven is suddenly homeless, then living in a squalid apartment, away from any connection to his crew or Selena. Subsequently, we bounce around between characters, their stories tied up in too-quick resolutions. Adrian Bridges' inspired sound design helps to sell the hurried transitions and messy plot lines, but in the end, we are left with a sense of unfulfilled promises.
The title This is Modern Art contains more conviction that the play itself, which at times feels more like a didactic lecture about the history of graffiti than a story with conflicts and needs. The audience is talked at and every scene is staged like a presentation, not a real, lived moment. Burr’s directorial style doesn’t land on any concrete choices, instead serving as a smorgasbord of ideas that leads to stilted performances from the very promising actors. It’s hard to care about characters who don’t feel, sound, or move in a real way. In a play about breaking out, breaking through and breaking rules, Burr’s form clashes distastefully with Goodwin and Coval’s content. The story at the core of the play’s plot is one of danger and adventure, of moral compromises and sticking it to the Man. And yet, I felt completely underwhelmed.
(This is Modern Art plays at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, 83 East 4th Street, through June 23, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Mondays at 7:30. Box Office is at NYTW- 79 East 4th Street. Tickets are $20 for June 2–4; $25 for June 7–11; and $35 for June 14–23 and are available at nytw.org.)
This is Modern Art is by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval. Directed by Jessica Burr. Set Design is by Matt Opatrny. Scenic Artist is KEO XMEN. Lighting Design is by Miriam Nilofa Crowe. Sound Design is by Adrian Bridges. Costume Design is by Haydee Zelideth. Stage Manager is Darielle Shandler.
The cast is J. Stephen Brantley, Andrew Gonzalez, Ashley N. Hildreth, Nancy McArthur, Shakur Tolliver, and Landon G. Woodson.