Produced by Goodman Theatre, Chicago
The Goodman Meets Future Shock
Many times my friends and I have enjoyed mocking our theatre elders’ consternation over all these gosh-darned social media and newfangled devices. If you ever want to see a rambling stream of panicked umbrage, try reading some articles on what artists and teachers are doing to integrate mobile content into their productions. It was with some bemusement that I read about the Goodman’s new production of Regina Taylor’s stop. reset, which debuted in New York in 2013, and focuses on the cultural divide between young people who feel comfortable with technology and old people who do not, and the possibilities for changing artistic experiences. Usually when established artists broach these subjects, they have nothing to say except how annoyed they are to have to appeal to audiences as if they are in the hospitality business, and their disdain for young people they are supposedly trying to welcome is obvious. Taylor’s play was therefore a pleasant surprise for me in that I found it entertaining and passionate. Whether it makes any sense I’m still not sure—the play takes place in the near future, and the computing technology she explores is actually highly speculative and firmly within the realm of science-fiction—but the production, which she also directed, is captivating.
The play takes place in the offices of Alexander Ames VII’s (Eugene Lee) publishing company, which was founded during the Civil Rights movement to publish African-American literature, and advance freedom’s cause. On this particular day, Ames is late because he went out of his way to avoid a group of young black men, who his veteran staff of four agree should all be locked up forever. Ames has been beset by trouble in recent years: he had a stroke, his son, Alexander Ames VIII, was killed in a random act of violence, and his wife ran off to Kenya to “find herself.” A year ago, his beloved publishing company became a subsidiary of a larger corporation, and now, headquarters is demanding that he lay off one of his loyal workers. This news has set off a flurry of vicious back-stabbing among the four employees: Tim (Tim Decker), a liberal white guy from Champaign who has worked under Ames for twenty-two years and has a pregnant girlfriend; Chris (Eric Lynch), a black man with an MBA from Harvard who was friends with Ames’s slain son, considers himself Ames’s heir, and is blatantly pushing the old man out; Deb (Lisa Tejero), an Asian-American woman who is fifty-nine, married to an Uber driver, and suggests hiring a new media consultant; and Jan (Jacqueline Williams), a late middle-aged black lesbian who forgot to bring the coffee today, and to keep her place, ventures out into a blizzard that will drop six feet of snow before it’s done.
Ames just doesn’t know what to do. He loves not only the physical form of books, but the feeling that he has been entrusted with the accumulated knowledge of the black experience in America, which he does not know how to pass on. But there is someone else in the office: a nineteen year old black janitor called J (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), who spends most of his time playing a life-simulator video game while going about his tasks. Though his piercings and hair extensions are cyber-punk in style, Ames and his staff presume J to be a west side ghetto gang-banger, and Ames tries to engage him by saying so. J laughs him off, at first, but comes into serious philosophical conflict with Ames when he says he sees no value in preserving the past or a particular culture, and through his online game, can meld minds or trade places with anybody in the world. His goal in the game is to become a god. Ames is baffled and offended, but an idea occurs to him. If minds can be uploaded to computers, then might they not be uploaded into other, younger, healthier bodies? And if they can acquire other peoples’ memories, then might it not be possible for him to absorb and become the entirety of what black America has been, and will ever be? It looks like Ames might have a new consultant, after all.
At least, that’s what I think his thought process was. I’m not sure. J’s exact nature is never revealed, he’s referred to as a “trickster,” and may already be an amalgamation of minds trapped in its own memories, or something else completely. Ricardo Hernandez’s alley-style set is surrounded with screens showing news footage from the 60s on, as well as a woman in the Serengeti and Alexander Ames VIII modeling a suit—the interior of Ames’s mind, I suppose. All of stop. reset’s design team did a wonderful job. Karen Perry’s futuristic costumes are just slightly quirky in their use of leather and patterns. Keith Parham’s lighting and Shawn Sagady’s projections are immersive and endlessly fascinating. And Hernandez’s placement of an elevator, such a simple thing, somehow conjures Michigan Avenue in a climate changed world.
The cast, likewise, give solid performances, particularly the leads. Sanchez’s J is lonely and distrustful. Preferring to interact with people only at a distance and anonymously, he depends on his created world to provide him with a quiet place. Lee’s curmudgeon still has a spark of the energy that drove him to found his company, hypocritical as he has become, and though he cherishes his employees, he is a hardened businessman. The four others, who are often frozen for long stretches of time, are transparent in their baseness, but desperate and right to feel underappreciated. However, I was confused by something Tim said about his relationships with black people, which I didn’t catch completely, but it sounded like he was awkward in their presence because he was unused to them from growing up in Champaign, which would not be accurate. I’m from Champaign; my neighbors and more than a third of my classmates were black. Or maybe Tim said “Des Plaines.” On the other hand, his behavior in the face of his publishing service company’s imminent downfall is completely plausible, based on a fellow townie’s observations.
So the play is bizarre and has problems, but for the design, acting, and uniqueness of the ideas, I think it is worth the cost of admission and time. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch to promote stop. reset like it’s about using currently existing technology to address young peoples’ social issues, and then going into the most far-out fantasies of computer nerds to create a play about mind-melding and digital immortality, but honestly, I’d rather watch the latter. Seeing my generation represented by a magical extraterrestrial with social anxiety disorder is sort of flattering, I guess. I wonder how much the older audience members identified with Ames. It must be horrible to discover your life experience is a hindrance instead of an advantage, but he and his employees are depicted as so hypocritical and outpaced by progress that whatever once made them admirable no longer exists. They do make for entertaining drama, though.
Reviewed June 1, 2015
This play has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see stop. reset’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the Owen Theatre at the Goodman, 170 N Dearborn Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $10-40; to order, call 312-443-3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org. Plays Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 7:30 pm (with talk-backs), Thursdays at 7:30 pm (and at 2:00 pm on June 8), Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm (and at 7:30 pm on June 14) through June 21. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.