SIXTEEN Gives Strong Voice To Teens In Trouble
Sixteen is a significant, even a sacred, age and number in our society. It's the age at which sweet sixteens are held for girls, a kind of ritual that marks the passage of time and growing up. Even the alliteration of that occasion represents an image of that age as somehow idyllic. It is, however, also an in-between time for people no longer children and not yet fully adults. Many of the more dangerous aspects of the world start to impinge on existence at that age. It is a bittersweet, crucial and, in many ways, a dramatic time.
If the age of 16 has been in search of its play, it may have found it in Hamza Zaman's beautifully written, acted and directed play "Sixteen," which just finished its run on September 9 as part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City. The show, produced by Seth Burrell, captures a sense of glory and doom, joy and angst. It is an intense play, without intermission, that lasts less than an hour and a half, but is nearly an hour and a half of concentrated theater. Sixteen is riveting and, probably, powerful in the production and on stage in a way that it may not be if you read the script. It gives voice to a procession of characters, as we see them weave in and out of the plot with well-crafted monologues presented as a series of meetings with doctors. The language, situation and sense of so much being at stake all suffuse this powerful play where the plot allows us to meet a cross section of troubled teens. These compact monologues, at once ideal for audition pieces and to get inside someone's soul, let people's souls speak to the audience in an intimate way, giving us a life story. This is not, though, "A Chorus Line." We meet teenagers facing troubles, good kids, mostly, dealing with tough things.
The show written with compassion by Zaman is set at a juvenile rehabilitation center for people awaiting sentencing by the courts. They come to this place, starkly recreated by pieces of metal fence, a desk, lights and sound to be evaluated and maybe even receive therapy. The two doctors who we meet, played by Melody Ladd and David Hilfstein, are compassionate, idealistic people who want to help and believe they can. They listen to kids and recommend to the courts as well as seeing how they can help. They are the "adults in the room" or are supposed to be, a little naïve, but with good hearts and intentions. They are visited by a bureaucrat, played by Alfred Kemp, who doesn't believe the center works and thinks rehabilitation is a myth up there with unicorns. He is all business and no humanity, academic and abstract, as he "audits" and evaluates the center. It's all about the budget for him. He's there to shadow and see how the center operates, although he makes it clear he's dubious and believes that the center coddles kids and does more damage than good. He's really there to cut the budget.
Through the play, we meet sixteen year olds who go into the doctors' office, but then disappear into their own world as they reveal themselves in emotional monologues. This is not coffee table conversation. The result is a series of soliloquies that fit together like pieces in a broken puzzle. The monologue typically begins with the 16-year-old seated with the adults, telling them their story. But they then go off into their own world as we hear about their own situations and, sometimes, tragedies. We hear about how a court system sometimes makes problems worse, punishing rather than problem solving. There are runaways and malcontents, children who grow up too quickly in an adult world or refuse to grow up and, despite their age, sometimes are treated as adults by the courts.
In this procession of human beings with entire lives crammed into passionate monologues, we meet a cross section of kids. And we hear strong, often silent, voices. Michael Carbone plays a disheveled gamer who got into trouble, all revved up with no place to go. He feels so real and on edge, full of energy in an electronic age, pacing as if in a cage, and even reads a rap his character wrote that captures all the energy, anger and oppression he feels. Morgan Billings Smith plays a sweet, sad and funny prostitute with a child the courts want to take away. We sense her desperation and feel the drama and injustice of the justice system when society steps in to separate a mother and child.
Michael Doliner plays a young art forger who argues that this is his art form. It's all fun to him, even if society sees crime. He seems focused on his skill rather than consequences from the adult world. Rachel Lepore plays a girl who gets in trouble over drugs in her backpack - and protects her boyfriend. Phil Shneider plays a suburban kid who gets in trouble for sexting, after forwarding a naked photo of a girl to a friend who sends it all over. Oghenero Gbaje gives a realistic portrait of a kid trying to survive in a tough world. And other performers also put in strong performances in this not-really-rogues gallery of lives found and lost. These are all kids - and they are kids - who have run ins with and are caught up in an often unforgiving justice system. And suddenly they are defined, and even incarcerated, for often momentary mistakes in a system that looks at their lives through adult eyes. This is a series of people all seeking, and not all given, second chances.
We even meet a teacher played by Andrea Peterson who had a relationship that she at one time may have viewed as a romance with an underage boy. She finally realizes that the boy can't consent. While some of these characters may sound like types torn from the news, the show's triumph is that, helped by strong performances, directing and writing, they emerge as much more. The writing is very real, full of vivid language, capturing voices, passions and desperation. It is a kind of Vagina Monologues for Adolescence, the kind of play, or show, that could resonate with young and old. The play feels authentic and emotional, very intimate with people pouring out their hearts, and performers doing this as well, rather than engaging in mundane conversation. This is an intense show that, yes, deals with the issue of youth and how we handle, help and hurt them. But it is first and foremost a dramatic presentation of people's lives and the big dramas around them.
Part of the power of rap is that it is relevant, real and full of emotions. And it speaks to us or at least to those who love it. The direction here by Michael Whitney is very strong, weaving what might seem disparate, desperate monologues together seamlessly. This play is a primal scream, not because it is loud, but because it is passionate with the various voices rising together like a well harmonized chorus. And Whitney's direction gives a voice to young people who are often silenced on stage. There are so many complaints about whether theater is dead or dying and why more young people don't go and love it. If there were more shows like this, that dialogue might be different. The play mixes both realistic monologues and expressionistic, even painterly moments. And it's directed with a kind of sense of music as the show rises to a crescendo.
We follow young people and learn what happens to them, sometimes in comic resolutions and sometimes more tragic, even as we learn what happens to the center. The debate between doctors and bureaucrat leads where it appears to. The prostitute becomes a real estate broker or at least tries to. Others are relegated to long sentences in jail or freed. These are not kings or jokers, but rather broken human beings or just people who don't get a break, caught in a world with rules that sometimes create victims. This is a bold play boldly directed with sympathy and humanity along with expressionistic touches that amplify the emotion.
The audience gave the show a well-deserved standing ovation on the night that I went. While many plays move forward from scene to scene, this show in a stark setting feels more like music, with each musician playing a solo. Each monologue exists in the present, but also as part of the plot. And the contrast between the adults in the room, passionate about saving these kids, and the kids amplifies the volume of the primal scream. At the end, the funding for the center is withdrawn. The heartless, academic official played by Kemp asks whether the doctors are upset for the kids or for themselves. He favors self-reliance over self-pity. While Zaman clearly believes compassion can cure, or at least help, this message is more timely than ever. We need to help ourselves, but others too. And 16, while it can be a sweet age, is bittersweet for many.
There may be some truth to the idea that in the end we have to save ourselves. Still, at least the doctors played b Ladd and Hilfstein are engaged in a good fight and a good cause in this show. They are like two parents for these kids whose parents we never meet. Giving up hope is never good. Giving us hope always is. In the end, I left this show not feeling I had simply heard a play. I felt I had heard the voices of young people, often excluded from the media and not taken seriously. These are strong voices written by Zaman and woven together well by Whitney and a talented cast into a whole. This is an unusual, intense show. It is also one that, I hope, will be done again so that other people can hear these strong voices. Kudos to the writer, director cast and the production. The show may be called Sixteen, but it is first among my favorites in recent memory.