By Aaron Todd Douglas
From the novel by Kalisha Buckhanon
Directed by Carla Stillwell
Produced by MPAACT Theatre
At the Greenhouse Theatre, Chicago
Unequal criminal justice system vividly displayed
Upstate, based on letters written in the 1990’s (who writes letters anymore?), is a fine theatre piece deftly adapted for the stage by Aaron Todd Douglas from Kalisha Buckhanon’s novel. For most of the 90 minute one-act, the two lovers are only united by their letters. In 1990, the then-17 year old Antonio (Juwan Lockett) finds himself jailed for killing his abusive father by stabbing him in the back. Antonio’s rage is peppered when no one in the criminal justice system believes that it was an accident that happened during his father’s physical abuse of his mother and younger brother. Is Antonio just another mad-at-the-world teenager, or is he more of a victim than killer?
His soulmate, Natasha (Asia Martin), the fellow student and lover, stands by her man as the criminal justice system offers Antonio few options: second degree murder – 15-25 years in prison, or a guilty plea to manslaughter and ten years behind bars. Natasha advises him to refuse the plea but his lawyer advises Antonio to take it. He does.
Much of Upstate is told through letters between Antonio and Natasha. These exchanges refer to various actions and episodes in both their lives. We feel Antonio’s rage, loneliness, and strength of character through the honest work by Juwan Lockett. Asia Martin brings Natasha’s loyalty and her deep love for Antonio truthfully as we empathize with her devotion. We also realize that these two are intelligent and strong personalities. While Natasha strives in school and pursues a law degree, she still has her heart set for Antonio. Antonio, while he still pines for Natasha, eventually lets her go through letters. We see that he tries to make the best of his time in prison by learning and accepting his fate.
After 5 years in prison, he get paroled. While adjusting to the outside world, he desires to meet Natasha. I’ll not say more so as not to give away the twists in this story.
Upstate is effectually written, and nicely staged by director Carla Stillwell with superb performances by Juwan Lockett and Asia Martin. This play puts a face on the rough and unequal treatment of young African-American men once they enter the criminal justice system. Yet, Upstate has a redeeming, even hopeful tone, showing that personal strength of character with having someone who believes and cares about you communicating with you can make the deciding difference in your life. Finally, we learn that Antonio is a true spirit whose self-sacrifice makes him noble and who deserves better treatment from the system.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: February 7, 2016
For more info checkout the Upstate page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, call 773-404-7336, www.mpaact.org, tickets $23 – $25, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 90 minutes without intermission, through February 28. 2016