'Ghosts' lays race, adolescence bare
By Nina Metz, Tribune reporter
Every so often a play comes along that captures the heady mix of comedy and frightening unpredictability that defines teenage life. These kinds of plays can be some of the most exciting nights at the theater, which is the case with "Ghosts of Atwood," the terrific new show from playwright Shepsu Aakhu about the turbulent months he spent boarding at a Wisconsin military school in the late 1970s — the rare black face in a sea of white.
As a portrayal of schoolboy camaraderie and peer pressure, Aakhu's play bears a resemblance to Barry Levinson's 1996 film "Sleepers" and more pointedly Alan Bennett's 2004 play "The History Boys." But "Ghosts of Atwood" (produced by MPAACT on the Greenhouse mainstage) stands on its own. Though it has some minor issues that need addressing, it has all the makings of a breakout hit and deserves a long run.
At the play's center is Quinn (Wardell Julius Clark), a sweet-faced kid from Chicago who is beaten to a pulp upon his arrival at the school, Atwood. The hazing has less to do with race than his newbie status — but the racial tension is ever present. "This was a brand new alone," Quinn says. "I was alone with white people." It is a very good performance from Clark, who portrays Quinn's naiveté with a real sense of texture and human nuance.
An upperclassman named Whitehead is the only other black on campus (a first-rate Corey Spruill, wound tight in all the right ways), but for the most part he leaves Quinn to fend for himself in the dorms — a hothouse of unchecked adolescent energy fueled by testosterone, marijuana and Led Zeppelin.
The play is a major step forward for MPAACT, which is one of the city's only black storefront theater companies. Not everything works. Casey Diers' lighting is clunky and the script could use some edits — the too-long, abstract preamble needs to go. But the play has serious commercial potential. Director Andrea J. Dymond pulls no punches. The production is light enough on its feet to sidestep anything too earnest — horrible as these boys are, they are also entertaining doofs — and the show has a real sense of momentum.
Brooding and complicated, the boys are quick to taunt one another but just as quick to crack jokes. Fistfights break out with alarming frequency. The school itself doles out its share of physical punishments. And at night, under the cover of darkness, the boys are haunted by "ghosts" — their euphemism for a particular adult who roams the halls with odious intentions.
Dymond and her crackerjack, 13-member ensemble (including Dan Loftus as the stern but fair drill sergeant and Zack Shornick as a bratty jerkoff cadet) never once let up. There is a locker room mentality that courses through everything these boys say and do, and Aakhu brings it all to life with dialogue that rings true.
Acting Afrikan Centered Theatre Awards Carla Stillwell Chris T Fascia Ghost of Atwood Review Heather Ireland Kevin Douglas Kosi Dasa Lydia Diamond Lydia R. Diamond Mignon McPherson Nance Radical Hearsay Review Shepsu Aakhu Stage Black Ten Square The Inside Writing