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Photo credit: Maria Baranova

This is Modern Art

Written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, Directed by Jessica Burr

Presented by Blessed Unrest at Next Door at NYTW, NYC

June 2-23, 2018

The question of what counts as art might seem tired or clichéd, a prompt for college students to debate perhaps. However, as This is Modern Art demonstrates, this question can intersect with urgently relevant questions of race, class, and power in America. Originally commissioned by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, This is Modern Art imagines the real-life 2010 graffiti "bombing" with a 50-foot long piece of art of an outer wall of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago from the perspective of the artists -- or, to use the movement's own term, writers -- themselves. The play, written by Idris Goodwin, who received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Kevin Coval, who is also an activist, director of the Young Chicago Authors program, and co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb, an annual teen poetry slam, proved to be controversial upon its debut, with accusations of glorifying criminality only serving as evidence of the very social attitudes and mechanisms that the play asks audiences to interrogate. The new revival, directed by Jessica Burr for the consistently excellent Blessed Unrest, encourages such interrogation through a production that is smart, fast-paced, funny, and heartfelt.

Although the actual 2010 incident was caught on tape, the identities of the writers (who would still face felony charges) remain unknown. In This is Modern Art, the real-life Made You Look crew becomes the Look Over Here crew, or LOH, composed of a trio of men of color in their early twenties:  Mexican American Jose Clemente, or J.C. (Andrew Gonzalez), who enjoys taking the time to appreciate normally unseen aspects of the city; Guatemalan American Dose (Landon G. Woodson), always ready with a joke; and African American Seven (Shakur Tolliver), who dreams of taking their art and reputation to the next level and functions in some ways as the heart of both the crew and the play. Seven's white girlfriend Selena (Nancy McArthur), whom Seven began to teach on their second date to read street art and to understand elements of the movement such as tags versus pieces (as in 'masterpieces'), acts as the crew's driver and lookout. Through the group's conversations among themselves and at a party that includes guests Rhonda (Ashley N. Hildreth) and Marco (J. Stephen Brantley), the narrative weaves in the context of larger debates such as the place of graffiti in the art world and when graffiti stops being graffiti. Must it be an act of resistance or rebellion? Is it no longer graffiti if permission has been given? Are graffiti and street art the same thing, exactly? Or do definitions merely create and enforce boundaries, some of which help to maintain the existing power structures? The distinction between college or art school and self-education is positioned by Dose, J.C., and Seven as such a boundary, as well as echoed in a disagreement over whether Lil' Wayne represents a walking distillation of capitalism or a genius artist deconstructing language (or, realistically, a mixture of both?). Race of course factors into all of these considerations as well: while someone like Selena might be able to mitigate the consequences of her involvement in the movement by, say, talking to a lawyer, as her father (J. Stephen Brantley) urges, for others, primarily young artists of color, the stakes include the danger of injury, incarceration, or even death.   

This type of art is often, by its nature, ephemeral, but, as the characters point out, it nevertheless has its own canon and history, even its own "museums," such as an abandoned candy factory referenced by J.C. Seven's tagging of the culturally sanctioned space of the Art Institute, combined with Rhonda's disbelief that LOH art could ever be featured within that space, inspires Seven to propose the plan to bomb the wall of the Modern Wing to his crew.  Afterwards, as the varied reactions to the piece flood in from the news and the internet (Hildreth's smarmy reporter voice is spot-on), the group is forced to deal with the aftermath and its effects on their ability to continue as a crew of writers. The media coverage of the actual event appears to have been generally negative, upholding the dominant, capitalist interest in the protection of private property and control over space -- a 2010 NBC 5 Chicago article tellingly labels its photo slideshow "Graffiti Artists Deface Modern Wing," allowing the verb to undermine its subject noun -- and the play's mix of reactions draws at least in part from actual quotes from the media. Ultimately, the characters, and Seven in particular, are left with one significant question: was it worth it?

Next Door at NYTW is an extremely intimate rectangular space, and Blessed Unrest needs only some cardboard boxes, a single loveseat, and the skill and enthusiasm of its cast to create a strong sense of place and a compelling show. The production makes great use of music, as well as of clever ways to represent acts of painting. The main graffiti piece in the play broadly resembles its real-life counterpart, but it is its own original work by Blake Letham, a.k.a. KEO a.k.a. SCOTCH 79, a graffiti writer, visual artist, and MC from Brooklyn who started off painting subway cars. The staging makes effective use of extended asides -- some of which explain without condescension the tools and strategies of street art to the audience -- combined with a naturalistic delivery, giving the sense at times of watching talking-head interviews in a documentary. The actors deeply inhabit their roles, with Tolliver in particular consummately conveying Seven's passion for art, from Caravaggio to the contemporary, as well as his frustrations at the obstacles that he faces. Tolliver and McArthur together bring Seven and Selina's arc and the play as a whole to a powerful emotional climax, while Woodson and Gonzalez bring to the proceedings a balance of ebullience and composure respectively.

Seven begins the play by asserting that the right piece of graffiti could change someone's life. This is Modern Art, not discounting its darker moments, examines the power of this art form with exuberantly infectious energy. But theater, like graffiti, is transitory, so see this piece while you can. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler

Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy. When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.

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