At the Goodman (Owen) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –Ike Holter’s “Lottery Day” at the Goodman Owen Theatre is the final entry in a seven-play project that attempts to portray the tumultuous daily existence of ethnically mixed characters living in the fictitious 51st ward, commonly called Rightlynd, in Chicago.
The Rightlynd Saga is one of the most ambitious projects in modern Chicago theater history. Unfortunately it’s likely that comparatively few area playgoers have attended the shows since the first one, “Exit Strategy,” premiered in 2014 because five of the seven were presented in storefront theaters that have limited patronage. For the record, the other Saga plays are “Sender” (2016), “Prowess” (2016), “The Wolf at the End of the Block” (2017), “Rightlynd” (2018), and “Red Rex (2019).
The saga includes recurring characters, some major and some marginal, and for the concluding “Lottery Day” several actors have returned in their original roles. I saw one previous saga play, “Rightlynd,” at the Victory Gardens but didn’t see the other five in the storefront theaters, which is my loss. I thus missed the references from the previous plays that Holter embedded in “Lottery Day, character facets and shards of narrative from earlier works that could have made the “Lottery Day” storyline more coherent.
A lot of referential material in “Lottery Day” may have eluded me, but I could still sit in awe at the energy and intensity of the acting and Holter’s skill at flooding the stage with a blizzard of funny, serious, and profane dialogue. Every spectator will enjoy the dazzling display of language delivered by an ensemble as talented and committed as any we have seen on a local stage in a long time.
The entire play is set in the backyard of a large home in Rightlynd. The home belongs to Mallory, the play’s dominant character, a middle aged woman and the den mother to a diverse assortment of mostly black and Hispanic characters. They have been invited to a barbeque, a command performance really, that Mallory is throwing for a mysterious purpose.
Most of the first act is a whirlwind of verbal exchanges among Mallory and her guests, with constant overlapping dialogue spoken with enormous velocity at the shout level. I couldn’t follow every line in the verbal uproar but I suspect the playwright doesn’t care about line-by-line clarity. He is trying for an overall verbal effect that mixes the spoken word with singing, dancing, and rap. Specific meanings may be lost in the tumult but the viewer should get the general idea of what is happening on the stage.
We do learn that Mallory lost her family to a fearful act of violence several years ago. Her reason for holding the barbeque is to conduct a lottery, with the winner getting a large cash prize. The lottery is somehow interwoven with the deaths of Mallory’s family. Until that revelation is unveiled, the audience can observe a nasty conflict between Mallory and a Puerto Rican woman named Vivian living next door, as well as the continuous churning of high decibel in-your-face verbiage among all the characters.
“Lottery Day” grew on me as the play progressed. I was pretty much lost in the turbulence of the dialogue for the first half of the play, but either I adjusted or Holter turned more accessible as the show progressed.
“Lottery Day” can be compared to a kaleidoscope of language spoken by characters like they were on speed dial. Under Director Lili-Anne Brown’s direction, the actors sustain verbal lucidity at an astonishing crescendo, their timing never faltering even when the characters are rant away at fever pitch.
The play runs a little over two hours, plus an intermission that is really a continuation of the play, with the characters remaining on stage, eating and drinking, and dancing as the audience drifts in and out of the theater. The action slows down as the final act concludes and we get Mallory’s explanation of the lottery, which I thought was a bit of a letdown. The show ends on somber note and I found myself preferring the exuberant earlier part of the show to the overlong conclusion.
One can quibble about the play’s storytelling but there can only be approval for the commitment and acting chops of all 10 members of the ensemble. The dominant performance, of course, comes from J. Nicole Brooks as the indomitable Mallory with her relentless fire, sass, and hidden pain. Mallory is the most complete character in the play, a magnet holding the other characters in her orbit with the force of her personality. The vocal demands of the role alone are boggling but Brooks’s motor never flags. An amazing performance.
The other nine actors all meld into an extraordinary assemblage of personalities, each one with at least one spotlight moment during the evening. They all earn equal billing for their contributions so they are listed alphabetically, with unreserved appreciation—Aurora Adachi-Winter, Sydney Charles, McKenzie Chinn, Robert Cornelius, James Vincent Meredith, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Tony Santiago, Michele Vazquez, and Pat Whalen.
Arnel Sancianco’s detailed backyard set fits nicely within the intimate Owen Theatre acting space. Samantha C. Jones designed the costumes, several colorful and even humorous. Jason Lynch designed the lighting and Andre Pluess the sound plan. And a shout out goes to Erica Sartini-Combs and Adam Belcuore for their bull’s-eye casting, providing director Brown with the human tools she needed to render Holter’s challenging script with so much zest and power.
It is inevitable that Ike Holter’s seven-play sequence will be compared with August Wilson’s 10-play cycle about African American life during the 20th century. Holter still isn’t at the Wilson level in depth or narrative command, at least on the evidence of the two plays I saw. But the language skills are there and so it’s the ability to create vivid characters while attacking relevant themes that can engage both black and white audiences. Maybe some theater benefactor will bankroll a complete staging of the entire Rightlynd Saga with the “Lottery Day” ensemble as its core. If not, we still can look forward to Holter’s next play with much anticipation.
The show gets a rating ofstars.
“Lottery Day” is playing through April 28 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $49. Call 312 443 3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/LotteryDay.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2019
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