Playwright: Ike Holter
At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave. Tickets: 773-649-3186; Steeptheater.com $10-$38. Runs through: March 16
Artists as the shock troops of gentrification isn't a new trope. But Ike Holter's Red Rex captures the existential trench warfare inside and outside the play's eponymous "poorfront" theater company. Red Rex has established its artistic beachhead in Rightlynd, the fictional 51st Ward that forms the center of Holter's seven-play cycle. But when artistic director Lana ( Amanda Powell ) writes and directs a new play, Jagged Surrender, apparently set in the neighborhood, it backfires badly.
There is indeed irony in seeing Red Rex at Steep, a longtime storefront troupe that has grown in both reputation and size over the years. ( Its spiffy new Boxcar cabaret/lounge space adjacent to the theater feels like the sort of place that would supplant a grittier shot-and-a-beer joint in Holter's fictional neighborhood. ) But Holter isn't merely dissecting the liberal hypocrisies of white theater artists who colonize communities of color, by sins of commission and omission. He's taking aim at the larger and thornier conundrum of what it means to speak for others, as plays invariably do.
Can a piece of theater purporting to embody larger social truths do that by perverting the actual truth of another person's life? Where's the line between creative collaboration and abuse of power? Holter etches these questions in acid. Yet as a high-profile Chicago theater artist himself ( his last play in the Rightlynd series, Lottery Day, is slated to open this spring at the Goodman ), he also displays great empathy for people who just want to put up a show they believe in.
Jonathan Berry's staging synchs up beautifully with both instincts in Holter's story, letting them play off each other with finesse and fire. At times, Powell's Lana and Chris Chmelik's Greg, the hardnosed executive director for Red Rex, feel like they're heading into cardboard-villain territory. But the latter gets one of the most cutting lines when he notes that "important is different than good" when it comes to creating a play.
Fortunately, Red Rex is both important and good. Holter's dialogue pulls no punches, but it also doesn't feed us easy platitudes about community and healing. It's also funny as hell, with just enough in-jokes to please the cognoscenti. "Don't gussy it up with your DePaul funny stuff," Powell's Lana admonishes her eager-to-please leading man, Adam ( Joel Reitsma ). As a newcomer to the Red Rex world but a lifelong Rightlynder, Nicole ( Jessica Dean Turner ) deals with the strain of being the only Black person involved with the company. That strain becomes nearly unbearable when Trevor ( the magnetic Debo Balogun ), another Rightlynd resident, reveals that Lana's purportedly fictional story comes from his own late mother's tragedy.
Ultimately, it's Aurora Adachi-Winter's Tori, the embattled stage manager, who finds some semblance of resolution for the conflicts laid bare by Lana's play. But Red Rex shows that the collateral damage done by gentrification and colonization lingers after the ghostlight expires.