“Checkmate,” created by Free Street Theater’s Youth HQ Ensemble and directed by Katrina Dion, is a compact sixty minutes of intelligent, witty, thought-provoking, functional theater. By “functional theater” I mean this play is not rooted in simply a beautiful aesthetic. It has that in the scenic design by Caswell James, which upon entrance creates an intriguingly eerie environment heightened by Damon Locks’ sound design. However the goal of “Checkmate” isn’t to just sit there and look pretty. It is to inspire, empower and plant seeds of knowledge and change in the heart of its audience, particularly the youth, that hopefully sprout into beautiful flowers of activism in their own lives. That is functional theater: to move beyond aesthetic and provide the audience with tools to use in their own lives.
“Checkmate,” which is set in the not so distant future, is about a group of youths hiding out in a school attic with a lofty goal of reinstating education. This basic, fundamental need has been ripped from them and in secret they must find the answer. The only problem is that they seemingly have no power because they aren’t of voting age. The story follows these youth as they grapple with the question, “How do you make change when you can’t vote?”
Katrina Dion has orchestrated the Youth HQ Ensemble in a way where the stories that are told are engaging and often hilarious. They will make you lean forward with curiosity. Additionally, the ensemble members (Shelbi Armstrong, Clare Gesinski, Rivka Goetz, Katie Grealy, Lincoln Harrison, Marcos Hernandez, Sierra Key, Niguel Neal, Israel Terrell, Joseph Radinsky, Tyrianna Ross, Kassandra Zavala, Susana Zavala and William Pettway) perform with passion and energy.
There is an African proverb that states, “When elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers.” The most beautiful thing about “Checkmate” is that it brings to the forefront the youth, who suffer in the adult political battles of greed and power. What this play does is remind us that while they may suffer the most, the youth also hold the key to figuring this thing out. (Loy Webb)
Free Street Theater, 1419 West Blackhawk, (773)772-7248, freestreet.org, Pay What You Can. Through May 6.