Prep — Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theatre

Prep

Pillsbury House Theatre
Directed by Noël Raymond

Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson made a splash in the Twin Cities a few years ago with Buzzer, a chamber drama on themes of urban gentrification that premiered at Pillsbury House Theatre before moving on to Chicago and New York. Now, with her second Pillsbury House premiere, Prep, Wilson has taken her storytelling style in a completely different direction, shedding the trappings of realism to present a confrontational, yet stylized tale told in incontiguous chunks by three of the participants. It’s an approach that, while sometimes awkward, gives the play an inexorable intensity that is maintained throughout its 70 minutes.

Set in a predominately black urban high school, Prep‘s story is driven by the actions of Chris (Kory LaQuess Pullam), a straight-A student known to his peers as “the rev” for his religious faith and pristine reputation. Traumatized by the recent shooting death of a close friend and the widely publicized police killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Chris comes up with a dramatic plan to force a change in social attitudes. When Chris tries to draw his friend Oliver (Ryan Colbert) into his plan, the two get into a fight, rumors of which reach the school’s white principal, Michelle (Jodi Kellogg). Always on alert for potential gang activity, Michelle attempts to figure out what is going on and whether she should cancel her students’ field trip to the elite private school where her wife works and her daughter is a student.

Prep — Image courtesy Pillsbury House TheatreAlthough a few key encounters between the characters are acted out conventionally, the majority of the story is related through past-tense monologues delivered by each of the actors in turn. These monologues are loaded with rhymes, half-rhymes, and alliteration, alluding at times to Shakespeare but even more so to the language, though not the cadences, of hip-hop. Both of these features operate as distancing effects, placing audience members in the critical posture of trying to piece together, from individual memories clearly filtered through reflection, what has happened, what underlying dynamics are at play, and how to feel about it all.

This approach places significant demands on the actors, and thankfully Pillsbury House’s cast is mostly up to the task. Pullam invests Chris with a nervous energy appropriate to the character’s desperation and emotional instability, while in Kellogg’s hands, Michelle’s outward cynicism comes off as a fragile veneer over her own sense of powerlessness to make more than a small difference in the lives of her students. Meanwhile, Colbert does a particularly impressive job bringing to life Oliver, who ultimately proves to be the play’s most complex character — one whose innate theatricality and adaptability serve him better than Chris’s moral certainty and righteous anger. (Of the three, Colbert also does the strongest job navigating the challenges of the rhyming framework.)

Like many new plays, Prep could use some tweaks. From time to time, a rhyme falls flat, and the characters are prone to occasional overexplaining. But those quibbles aside, Wilson has created an often-gripping theatrical experience that gives audiences multiple ways of looking at the play’s complicated and sometimes tragic subject matter. Prep plays at Pillsbury House through Oct. 18.

Photos by Rich Ryan

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.