Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets

Written by Itamar Moses
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Thrust Stage
August 29–October 19, 2008
World Premiere

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

The season kicks off with the world premiere of an incisive play set in Berkeley and written by a Berkeley native. Nationally known playwright Itamar Moses returns to his hometown with a script set just around the corner in the halls of his alma mater, Berkeley High. When the school newspaper publishes an insensitive story, students suddenly find themselves embroiled in a volatile controversy—and even their teachers seem unprepared to deal with the repercussions. Artistic Director Tony Taccone directs Yellowjackets, a compelling collision of race and class that forces us to examine familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.

Creative team

Itamar Moses · Playwright
Tony Taccone · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Obadiah Eaves · Original Music & Sound Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Steve Rankin · Fight Director
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Karen Szpaller · Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting Director
Mina Morita · Assistant Director
Wayne Kochanek · Assistant Fight Director

Cast

Shoresh Alaudini · Damian / Mr. Nelson
Jahmela Biggs · Tamika / Ms. Robbins
Alex Curtis · Ryan / Mr. Franks
Ben Freeman · Avi / Mr. Ivanov
Lance Gardner · James / Rashid
Amaya Alonso Hallifax · Alexa / Ms. Alvarez
Kevin Hsieh · Sammy / Mr. Ling
Adrienne Papp · Gwen / Mom
Craig Piaget · Trevor / Mr. Terrence
Brian Rivera · Guillem / Mr. Behzad / Officer Sanchez
Erika Salazar · Sarine / Ms. Earl

“Electrifying…Captures much of the immediacy, angst and firestorm of racial tensions, sex, bullying and other pressures we call a high school education.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Deeply authentic…Berkeley native Itamar Moses goes back to school with a vengeance in Yellowjackets…the playwright acutely nails the speech patterns of each clique, from taggers and stoner-philosophers to the geek squad. The dialogue pops in scene after scene as Moses plays games with linguistics, from SAT words to street slang.”—San Jose Mercury News

“Fascinating…substantial and compelling…Director Tony Taccone has infused the play with a wonderful helplessness and restless energy that typifies high school and that horrible age when everyone tells you you’re grown up, yet locks you up on campus for most of the day. He has also gathered an astonishingly talented cast of young actors who breathe a reality and genuine sense into the characters.”—Contra Costa Times

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

A playwright returns to his chaotic roots at Berkeley High

It’s not often that you offer a writer a commission and they know exactly what they want to write about. Usually there are several ideas that get tossed around until one finally seems worthy of pursuit. (We never, by the way, dictate the subject matter of a new play. Creative writing is a process that is far too unpredictable to be approached as a treatise on a given topic). It came as a surprise, then, when Itamar Moses responded to our offer of a commission by immediately saying that he wanted to write a play about Berkeley High. Having graduated in 1994, the wacky uniqueness of his experience had never left him, and the wide range of comedic and dramatic material seemed to offer a rich number of possibilities. After all, there is a reason that our little town is referred to as Berzerkley.

Itamar’s instinct was spot on. Berkeley High has long been regarded as one of the country’s preeminent high schools, with a proud history that includes being one of the first schools to voluntarily desegregate after the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education. The egalitarian ideals championed by the school have created a longstanding public dialogue about democracy, independence and citizenship that is impressive in the annals of American education. But those same ideals have often been at odds with the reality of a students’ day-to-day experience. Racial strife, identity politics and a campus that has bordered on being uncontrollable have also been hallmarks of Berkeley High. Until the appointment of Principal Jim Slemp in 2003, the leadership of the school was remarkably unstable, fueling the perception that in addition to being academically rewarding for an elite group of students, the school resembled more of a circus for the disenfranchised, the disinterested or the just plain scared.

Itamar’s play is set at the height of this chaos, when the issue of “de-tracking” (the dismantling of academic hierarchies in the creation of class rosters) revealed a horrific amount of tension at the school. But unlike a documentary, Yellowjackets is an epic drama weaving a host of plots and sub-plots to create a fictional portrait of a non-fictional school. The result is a melting pot that melts in some funny, strange and violent ways: a snapshot of the special planet that is Berkeley High and the story of every urban high school in America grappling with issues of race, class and who gets to make out with whom. It is told entirely from the point of view of the students, some of whom you will undoubtedly recognize and one of whom might be you.

It’s a great way to embark upon our 41st season. Welcome aboard.

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

Giving the Thrust a lift

In 1980 the Thrust Stage, designed by Gene Angell, proudly took its place as the most beloved theatre in the Bay Area. Those among you who made the transition with us from our storefront on College Avenue to Addison Street will no doubt remember how fresh and sparklingly new the Thrust was in those days. Twenty-eight years later, the Theatre hailed as the “most user-friendly theatre in the Bay” is showing some signs of wear. Let’s face it, the Thrust is in need of a “lift.”

If you love the Thrust as much as we do, fear not that we are going to alter the unique audience/actor relationship or the low-key informality of the hall. We love this theatre just the way it is. We’ll love it even more with a more efficient air conditioning system, and with newer technology that provides energy savings and more efficient use of resources. And we know you will appreciate upgrades that increase your comfort.

And so, we’re moving forward with a phased-in program of upgrades for the Thrust Stage. The first thing you’ll notice in the fall will be the new ductwork, which we hope will reduce the amount of cold air that blows down on those few seats in the house. (If you’ve sat in them, you know which ones they are!) By next summer, we’ll be ready to install a new air conditioning and heating system which promises better control and reduced energy usage. After that, we’ll begin the installation of new electrical systems, new seats and more.

All these improvements will cost about one million dollars. It seems like a tough time to take on this project, but we know that this is something that can not wait. The campaign to upgrade the Thrust Stage is just a portion of the Theatre’s ongoing 40th Anniversary Campaign. Launched four years ago to fund initiatives of our long range plan, the Campaign has provided essential resources for the expansion of our new play program, our education programs and our new audience initiatives. It has also provided funds to address many capital needs at Berkeley Rep.

To help us complete our campaign, an anonymous donor has made a $2 million challenge grant to the Theatre—matching your gifts, dollar for dollar, up to $2 million. We hope you will consider helping us meet this challenge. By putting your name on a seat or brick, or making any level gift to the Campaign, you will give our Thrust Stage the makeover it needs, while getting us closer to our challenge goal. So, when you receive that postcard, email or brochure in the mail asking you to name a seat, I urge you to lend your support.

Warmly,

Susan Medak

The Microcosm is the Macrocosm

Itamar Moses on Berkeley and its Berkeley-ness

When the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation to be unconstitutional in 1954’s famous Brown v. Board decision, it took until 1968 for the first school districts to voluntarily integrate their school systems. One of those districts was Berkeley, California. Berkeley’s fierce activism and leftist administration have been making national headlines for many decades. Playwright Itamar Moses created Yellowjackets based on his own experiences as a teenager at Berkeley High School in the mid-1990’s. Here he talks with Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager, Madeleine Oldham, about growing up in this veritable bastion of liberality.

Do you think Berkeley High is the quintessential public high school, an anomaly or somewhere in between?

I’m not sure that Berkeley High is any of those three things. On the one hand, it definitely isn’t the quintessential public high school because of how racially diverse it is and, maybe even more so, because of the politics of the people there, both students and faculty. It can’t be a typical high school any more than Berkeley is a typical American city…which it isn’t. On the other hand, it’s not an anomaly, because I think public high schools everywhere face basically the same problems. In a way, they’re just heightened by the lens of Berkeley-ness. Not only does it have the problems but everyone is constantly analyzing them. So I don’t think it can be said to be an “in between” place either. I don’t think there’s any school quite like Berkeley High.

What was your experience of tracked classes and the debate surrounding them?

There was still tracking when I started at Berkeley High, and they started to eliminate it for the classes that came in behind me, while I was there. I was I think two years too early for the transition. I don’t really remember having an opinion at the time but that may just have been because it didn’t actually affect me and, being a teenager, I was relatively self-absorbed. I imagine I’d have been upset by having to take untracked English classes and I probably would have been, at the time, unable to see the other side of the debate. I did have some untracked classes, though, electives and things, and I do remember having a double-edged-sword experience. I’d been in a pretty homogenous environment through eighth grade, because I’d always gone to private school, so I was thrilled to break out of that. But it was also in those classes where I first felt fear, real fear, of my classmates.

Because people threatened to beat me up, for basically no reason. Or, for no reason other than the enormous weight of history, which is to say, for every reason. But, the point is, learning is IMPOSSIBLE under those conditions. If you don’t feel safe, it’s impossible to think about anything else. Looking back, of course, I see how funny that sounds, when applied to some 14-year-old kid getting messed with by some other 14-year-old kid. But that’s kind of the point. The microcosm IS the macrocosm.

Did Berkeley High shift from being an open campus to a closed campus while you were there? What do you remember about those conversations?

Berkeley High was never a closed campus when I was there, I don’t think. It was pretty easy to get on and off campus and that actually was an important psychological component of the experience of being there. It made it feel like less of an obligation. It felt like we were being treated a little bit like adults, which is thrilling for people who aren’t adults. There was always this vague debate going on about whether the campus should be closed, because it was too easy for students to leave early, or because it was too easy for non-students to sneak onto the campus and cause trouble, but the question of what to do about it was still kind of amorphous when I left.

Please list your top five favorite and least favorite memories of Berkeley High.

Too much. Much too much. Much of it unprintable. It’s also hard to distinguish between favorite and least favorite by now, because it was all so intense. When you’re that young, everything is so full of meaning, and I miss that categorically, even when it comes to the bad stuff. Anyway, a lot of my most vivid memories are in the play, in one way or another.

How did this commission come about?

My sense is that Tony Taccone felt vaguely obligated to meet with me because of my Berkeley roots, and then gradually and reluctantly began to enjoy working with me. Just kidding. Sort of. I had a meeting with Tony a few years ago, and I told him I’d always wanted to write a play about BHS, and we agreed that it was logical to write it on commission for Berkeley Rep.

If Berkeley Rep hadn’t commissioned this play, do you think you would have written it anyway?

Probably. I’d actually already started. Or, I had some notes and ideas, about a play set in a high school newspaper office. But if I hadn’t gotten the commission from Berkeley Rep, that play never would have become what Yellowjackets became, because knowing the play was for a Berkeley audience, to be performed a few blocks from Berkeley High, made me feel like I owed it, to everyone, to myself, to the community, to my friends, to my enemies, to really DO Berkeley High. To do it justice. The play I first envisioned was too slight. Essentially, it did what I had done for much of high school, which was hide in the newspaper office from what was going on in the rest of the school. But then it occurred to me that I was probably only ever going to write one play about Berkeley High and so I’d better swing for the fences.

Did you purge anything in the writing of this play?

No. If anything, I was forced to look at, and try to transcend, my own timidity surrounding these issues. I’m more confused than ever now. Which is I think a good sign.

Would people you went to high school with recognize themselves in your play?

I’m not sure how you mean that. If you mean literally themselves, then, I guess, yes. Teachers more so than students, though. A lot of the adult characters are, very loosely, based on teachers I had, or who were sort of iconic or legendary Berkeley High teachers, while I was there. There used to be more, actually, but I had to cut a lot of them, for the good of the play.

They’re homages, really. The students are mostly amalgams, combinations of a lot of people I knew, or at least spent a lot of time with, back then. Some of my friends will probably be like, “That’s me!” and they’ll be right, kind of, but they’ll have to share that feeling with seven or eight other people in almost every case. So if you mean will people recognize themselves in the more general sense of, like, identification, then the answer is, I hope, also yes. That would mean I’d done my job.

In Yellowjackets, the school newspaper seems like a very cool thing to do, like the non-sporting equivalent of the high-school football team. Was it actually that cool at Berkeley High?

What? No. Have I made it seem cool? No, it was incredibly nerdy. Personally, I found it exciting—the deadlines, and the late nights and the seat of your pants excitement of it—but in the general sense it was very nerdy. I did love it, though, and I guess that comes through.

Were you involved in any pranks or sundry lawless activities at Berkeley High that you would now like to confess to?

At Berkeley High? Nothing that springs to mind. A bunch of us did once steal a giant sign that said “Senior Crossing” from the senior lounge at Head Royce…because of course we were annoyed that they had something called a “senior lounge.” Last I knew, a friend of mine still had it.

If you could ask your high school self one question, what would it be?

“Is there a reason you’re not asking that girl out?”

What influence did growing up in Berkeley and/or going to Berkeley High have on the way you see the world as an adult?

Well, for one thing, I think people from less diverse areas of the country are less comfortable with diversity, if that’s not a really obvious observation. But I think the thrust of your question probably has more to do with politics. And I am firmly left of center, politically, and growing up in Berkeley probably had something to do with that. But I’m also pretty moderate. My sense of the political spectrum is that it’s actually a circle, in that if you go far enough to the left you land back on totalitarianism.

I think I’m a mediator by nature, and so maybe growing up in Berkeley just enhanced that. I’m deeply uncomfortable with rigidity, extremity and total certainty about anything. Which is useful for a playwright, since my job, a lot of the time, is to argue with myself all the way to an uncomfortable silence…and then escape by means of a lighting shift.

Did you have an audience in mind while creating this play? Did knowing that it would be produced in Berkeley and seen by people very familiar with the world of the play influence the writing of it?

I sort of answered this above. But if your question, really, is about universality; I think it’s the specificity of a story that actually renders it universal. This play isn’t only relevant to Berkeley anymore than my play Bach at Leipzig is only relevant to 18th century organists. All theatre is metaphor, and the more specific the details of a play, the more nuanced the metaphor becomes. On top of which, “Berkeley” continues to represent a particular idea, or set of ideas, in the national imagination.

Where does this play fall in the Moses canon? Is it a departure in any way from other things you’ve written?

Hm. I don’t know, really. I think it combines the naturalistic, voice-driving dialogue of some of my more recent plays, like The Four of Us, or Back Back Back, with the epic structure of my early play Outrage. Is that the right answer?

In the last few years, you’ve been receiving productions all over the country, including off Broadway. Does it feel different to have a play produced in your hometown?

It’s funny. I’ve been working professionally as a playwright for five or six years now but, because I’ve never been produced in the Bay Area before, I think a lot of the friends I grew up with have a pretty abstract idea of what I do for a living. So now that I have a play at Berkeley Rep, people will be like, “You finally made it, man.” And then, if I don’t have another show out there, it doesn’t matter what else happens, I could be on Broadway, I could win major awards, and they’d be like, “What happened, man? Oh well, at least you had that one play.”

1993–94 at a glance

It’s easy to assume that the mid-1990’s are after all, not that far away from 2008, and therefore must be similar to the present. But in pop culture terms, 14 years is a very long time. Here’s a snapshot of the 1993–94 cultural landscape:

Newsworthy events

  • PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin sign a peace accord
  • China violates the worldwide moratorium on nuclear tests
  • California Senator Alan Cranston receives a censure from Congress for his role in the Savings and Loan scandal
  • NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, takes effect
  • Scandal occurs at the Winter Olympics when an assailant, hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, clubs Nancy Kerrigan in the leg
  • A jury acquits Lorena Bobbitt (who cut off her husband’s penis) of all charges
  • The Brady Bill goes into effect, requiring gun purchasers to wait five days while retailers carry out background checks
  • Hutus slaughter Tutsis as the Rwandan genocide begins
  • Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, commits suicide
  • Former United States President Richard Nixon dies
  • The Channel Tunnel opens, connecting England and France
  • South Africa elects Nelson Mandela as its first Black president
  • Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman are murdered, and several days later O.J. Simpson is apprehended after a televised low-speed chase

Top movies

  • The Firm
  • The Fugitive
  • Jurassic Park
  • In the Line of Fire
  • Maverick
  • Mrs. Doubtfire
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • The Pelican Brief
  • Schindler’s List
  • Sleepless in Seattle

Top popular songs

  • Ace Of Base: The Sign
  • All-4-One: I Swear
  • Boyz II Men: I’ll Make Love To You
  • Mariah Carey: Hero
  • Celine Dion: The Power Of Love
  • Whitney Houston: I Will Always Love You
  • Janet Jackson: That’s The Way Love Goes
  • Silk: Freak
  • Tag Team: Whoomp! (There It Is)
  • UB40: Can’t Help Falling In Love

Popular TV

  • Coach
  • Frasier
  • Grace Under Fire
  • Home Improvement
  • Murder, She Wrote
  • Murphy Brown
  • Roseanne
  • Seinfeld
  • Thunder Alley
  • The X-Files