Frankly, I’m kinda surprised you’re reading this. If there’s any show opening in the twilight of 2018 that you should already have your tickets for, it’s this one. I’m going to assume you’re confirming with your trusted source of ethically minded theater criticism that what you believe in your heart of hearts—that “Rightlynd” is one of the not-to-be-missed theater events of the year—is true. For which I have but one thing to say: you already know.
If you have been attuned at all to the Chicago theater community in the last few years, the name Ike Holter rings Liberty-sized bells. But in case you’ve woken from a seven-year coma or you’ve arrived here by way of the “Hamilton” Express, Ike Holter is a playwright who has double-fistedly done more to raise the national profile of our local theater scene than anyone in anybody’s recent or not-so-recent memory.
Period. The end. No further questions, your honor.
My first experience with Holter’s work was the non-canonical, Holterverse-adjacent “Victory,” an entry in “The Citizens Anthology,” a short-play festival put on by The Inconvenience. “Rightlynd,” Holter’s latest, and the first sequentially in the saga that bears its name, contains a “Victory” easter egg in the guise of a citizen’s relentless attempts to get a stop sign installed on a neighborhood corner. That citizen is Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), a frazzled but passionate inhabitant of Rightlynd, Chicago’s fifty-first ward. With the help of a local drug dealer (LaKecia Harris), journalist (Anish Jethmalani) and mechanic (Robert Cornelius), she bids to take on entrenched politics by running for alderman. A first-generation immigrant, Nina’s can-do attitude is particularly heartening, although her “fuck the rules,” anti-establishment ethos slides into a “means-to-an-end” politicking that has her looking a lot like the very thing she fought against.
The events turn as effortlessly as the pages of a comic book. Nina finds a perfect foil in Applewood (Jerome Beck), the self-identified sentient extension of the foundation with which he shares a name, a real estate developer with hands deep in the pockets of local government. In many ways, Applewood, the person and the foundation, are surrogates to even more significant forces: gentrification and white entitlement. White voices are seldom heard, but the pressure they exert is felt all over. “We’re still here!” announces the cast valiantly at the bookends of the show. To which an unseen, yet ever-growing population of translucent culture vampires, fists wrapped around permits, bank loans and credit cards with four-percent cash back at qualifying restaurants, mutter under their collective breath: we’ll see about that.
What you’ll immediately notice about Holter’s work is that here people of color get to play heroes, villains and everything in between, including—wait for it—white people. For all of its seriousness of content and context, this is by far the thirstiest Ike Holter play I have ever seen and that is saying something: full song-and-dance numbers, a chorus as Greek as basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo, fourth-wall-breaking asides (“We’ll workshop it in previews”), perhaps the most appropriate application of the term “sloppy thot” yet conceived, and the highest density of “as fuck”s in the history of the written word, “Rightlynd” is, in the parlance of my generation, everything. Sometimes literally. With dialogue that moves at breakneck speed—Nina is particular breathless, rendering her moments of silence especially poignant—Holter crams as much into ninety minutes as mere mortals might do with twice the time. His ensemble is well-attuned to his rhythm, cadence and, crucially, humor. Victory Gardens would be wise to consider auxiliary programming featuring Sasha Smith and Robert Cornelius singing duets over savory yacht jams arranged by Mikhail Fiksel with lyrics by Holter himself.
Given his penchant for non sequiturs, Holter’s dramatic beats nevertheless drop swift, sharp and with unstoppable force. You won’t know they’re upon you until they’ve cleaved your heart in half with samurai skill. There has always been real tenderness in Holter’s work, although it’s not necessarily the first thing we critics get around to talking about. The love and sex in his plays are, like everything else, political. When Nina finds herself falling for Pac (Eddie Martinez), a wrongfully-but-nevertheless-convicted felon, she tells him, “It doesn’t matter to me.” He assures her that that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Like gentrification, the criminal justice system is lurking just outside the proscenium, watching and waiting. Its cartel includes local bureaucrats and politicians, developers and moneymen, and a systematically empowered class that prioritizes delivery from 7-Eleven and overpriced vegan tacos over people’s actual goddamn lives. They all eagerly await Nina’s downfall, not so they can end her, but so they can welcome her into the fold.
“Rightlynd” addresses a curious conundrum of modern politics: what exactly is the responsibility of the civilian beyond election day? And to whom do they owe an allegiance, if anyone? Politics is grossly complicated, although the sentiments surrounding it are frequently oversimplified. Parts of the electorate are constantly being accused of voting against their own best interest but what do we mean when we say that? Am I, a cishet white man, voting against my “best interest” when I vote for women politicians, politicians of color, transgender, non-binary and queer politicians, or politicians who practice faiths outside of my own? Since America’s founding, the country’s politics have been almost exclusively synonymous with whiteness, cis masculinity and Christianity. Our national leaders have historically offered America’s defining liberties to anyone who does not fall into those categories (usually all three simultaneously) only by measure of inches gained through years of exertion. We cannot afford to be cavalier or laissez-faire about the moral arc of history when it bends like the spine of Atlas, kept from breaking only by a will whose strength is in constant combat with that which seeks to obliterate it. Where will we be in two, four, six or ten years if this new wave fails or folds? There is a production, penned by another celebrated local scribe, playing in town that imagines an answer to this high stakes question, which is equally terrifying and plausible: Calamity West’s “In the Canyon.”
Ike Holter writes with the velocity and generosity with which his characters speak. The second half of this theater season will see the world premieres of “Red Rex” at Steep Theatre and “Lottery Day” at the Goodman, the latter of which will conclude the Rightlynd Saga. Including “The Light Fantastic,” there have been eight plays by Holter produced in the last five years. Let that sink in. Holter’s work has covered a significant amount of ground stylistically and dramatically, all while mapping an increasingly vivid portrait of contemporary Chicago, its history and its future. If Rightlynd is a stand-in for Chicago and how it is perceived nationally, then Holter is our Nina Esposito: impassioned and imperfect, inspired and inspiring. He is neither the hero we need nor the one we deserve. He is a citizen doing his job. (Kevin Greene)
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000, victorygardens.org, $27-$55. Through December 23.