By Rachel Bykowski.
Directed by Kallie Noelle Rolison.
Produced by 20% Theatre Company.
Playing at The Buena at Pride Arts Center, Chicago.
A Somewhat-Convincing, Truistic Narrative.
According to their mission statement, “20% Theatre Company is dedicated to strengthening the presence and raising public awareness of women artists in theatre.” Their current production by Literary Manager Rachel Bykowski titled Tight End—a story about a teenage girl named Ash who wants to play high school football—features roughly four times the estimated percentage of women theatre professionals (relative to men), from which the company takes its name: 20%.
On the playwright side of things, playwright Rachel Bykowski “writes plays to explore the many facets of womanhood;” plays which feature “female characters that raise awareness to social issues.” She, too, stands by her mission in Tight End, showing awareness to the biased tradition of football being a “boy’s sport,” as well as the axiom that “boys play rough” and its correlative “boys will be boys.” Awareness: raised. But is it enough?
In small town, Midwest, USA, football is based on tradition, on which then legend itself is built: just ask Ash’s late father, whose name became legend and his story myth after he beat the town’s rival football team during Homecoming so many years ago. Ash Miller (Bryce Saxon) wishes to live that legend—or, rather, she only wishes to play the sport she loves with the same hustle and success as her father—but as herself, regarded as her own person.
There are a few obstacles to this dream, as one might expect. Principally, tradition: girls don’t play football in small town, Midwest, USA; and as Coach D (Patrick Pantellis) says (quoting biological studies), girls are weaker than boys and are therefore in more danger of getting hurt. Ash’s mother Mizz Darla Miller is herself reluctant to let Ash try out for the team; but once Ash convinces her that it’s important to her, she supports her all the way.
Coach D—being a half-woke, half-joke kinda’ guy—allows Ash to try out and even puts her on the roster due to her impressive “hustle.” The boys on the team welcome Ash with jokes, and Sam Jones (Erich Peltz), Ash’s classmate, is himself skeptical of a girl playing football. But Ash is determined, tenacious, and won’t back down, and this quickly wins Sam over and they become friends with a fun, jibing dynamic.
We see Ash progress through her four years in high school, culminating in her being part of the team her senior year. As the big Homecoming game approaches, however, a devastating event takes place that jeopardizes everything Ash has bitterly fought for. Ash does play the Homecoming game—but the consequences are life altering for all involved.
Tight End raises awareness—of women in sports; of assumptions of femininity; of conceptions of masculinity; and, indirectly, of small town, Midwest, USA life—and feeds that awareness through a narrative that, presumably, would lead its audience from the ignorance of blindly following tradition like a truism, to challenging the notions of the abovementioned ideas. The power of the play’s awareness-factor (irrespective of its audience’s disposition, biased or not) relies on the strength of the narrative—the strength of which depends, among other things, on its plausibility. In short, extrapolating from playwright Bykowski’s own expressed motivation, the success of this production redounds upon its convincingness in terms of the awareness it brings (for if the matter at hand is a social issue, that it is a social issue is not under doubt, but rather what is under doubt is its conformity to actual facts; in other words, what is implicitly under doubt is its degree of being an issue worthy of attention).
In these terms, Tight End is somewhat convincing. In large part the play’s convincingness is undermined by the obstacles Ash faces to achieve her goal: they being not strong enough. One, the ambiguity of her motive—presumably to be seen as her own person (“as me”)—is never clarified: what exactly does it mean to be seen as oneself, irrespective of one’s gender, tradition, and lineage? Perhaps that is a question the play asks by never answering it.
Another unconvincing obstacle is Coach D. At times ignorant, at times mindful, Coach D is less a willful obstacle than a willful nuisance. Since playwright Bykowski continually moves the goal posts of his character—at first obtuse, then opposed, then for, then a rough-‘em-up coach, then perplexed—he seems less like a character living out his own life than a variable to fill in a “negative force” in a scene. In other words, Coach D is a weak male figure, but the story would have been more convincing if he had been strong. If there is a strong bias against women playing football, it is more convincing to see it on the stage than to just hear about it second hand. That’s what op-eds are for.
The tendency to tell the story second-hand runs rampant throughout Tight End, and this might be the biggest undoing of the play’s convincingness-factor. The actors periodically tell aspects of the story in direct-address. This, at first, is a nice touch because it sets up the tragic ending; but, by the end, it is tiring. The last quarter of the play is practically all narration, as many of the events cannot be properly staged (e.g. the Homecoming game). A different approach to these events would have had a much greater impact.
Last, in terms of convincingness, playwright Bykowski continually treads a thin line between comedy and drama throughout the play. Coach D is often portrayed as silly, in the way a benignly ignorant person often is. Sam, too, is often shown this way in the way he reacts to Ash as a girl interested in football. Despite the comedic highs and dark lows, the tone of the play does come out as natural. But that much of the comedy relies on the two character-obstacles seeming partly silly, again, undermines the convincingness of the social issue. The play tells of a backwards town and heinous events, but I would have appreciated the issue more had the backwardness and heinousness been shown to me—humanized, sure, but unadulterated by comedy.
To conclude, Tight End is a drama (with elements of comedy) about social issue: of them, foremost being the tradition of assumptions on woman vis-à-vis men, here shown in the context of small town, high school football. To someone who is indifferent on this issue (and most social issues), I found the portrayal somewhat convincing; nevertheless, I respected playwright Bykowski’s story-telling ability and her passion for her subject, especially because, for all its direct-address monologues, the play only seldom comes across as “preachy” (as opposed to some staged, vitriolic sermons I’ve encountered). Ironically, the inclusion of the particular comedic elements I referenced above makes this play most appealing to feminists and social-conscious theatre-goers—just the audience that probably doesn’t need to be “woke” by Bykowski’s awareness.
Playing at The Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are $20, with $15 tickets for Industry and Students.