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Playwrights Rip Trib and Sun-Times Theater Critics Over Graffiti Play

By Paul Biasco | March 2, 2015 1:58pm | Updated on March 3, 2015 12:18pm
 A new play at the Steppenwolf Theatre,
A new play at the Steppenwolf Theatre, "This is Modern Art," is about graffiti.
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Steppenwolf Theatre

LINCOLN PARK — The authors of a new play about graffiti at Steppenwolf Theatre said the backlash from the city's top theater critics was representative of the ideas at the core of the performance.

The play left critics fuming over what they say was its failure to recognize that most tagging was vandalism and harmful to city neighborhoods.

"This is Modern Art (Based on True Events)," is a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production and geared toward high school-age audiences. It tells the story of a group of teenage taggers in Chicago who, to make a point about what defines an artist, decide to spray graffiti on the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing.

The co-authors of the play, Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, founder of "Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival," ripped the critics Monday, claiming they missed the point entirely.

 Idris Goodwin co-wrote
Idris Goodwin co-wrote "This is Modern Art (Based on True Events)," slammed by critics as glorifying vandalism.
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Idris Goodwin

"What I'm not surprised about is old white people, critics for these dying papers, don't want to celebrate stories about youth culture who have been systematically denied agency," Coval said.

The critics "seem right on message," he said.

Goodwin said the negative reviews were "satisfying in a way" as they have sparked debate within the theater, arts and youth communities.

"It's like, that's the point y'all," Goodwin said. "The crew was trying to wake people up, to get people talking, and the play is doing the same thing."

Paul Biasco discusses the show's negative reviews:

The play raises questions of inequality, what makes art, who art is for, urban criminalization and youth empowerment.

Both Chris Jones of the Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times criticized the play in reviews printed Monday, saying it glorified tagging and failed to recognize the corrosive effect spray-painting can have.

"This play is a wildly wrongheaded and potentially damaging work — one that fails to call 'vandalism' by its name, and rationalizes and attempts to justify that vandalism in the most irresponsible ways," Weiss wrote. The play "sends out a slew of profoundly misguided messages to its impressionable viewers."

Weiss refers to the taggers, or graffiti artists, as "urban terrorists," in her review.

The playwrights said the question of legality arose during the planning stages of the play, but the story is not about whether graffiti is illegal.

"This is about the ingenuity of kids," Coval said. "The celebration of young people and their desire to create in a city, in a state, that regularly sanctions against them, regularly excludes them from art space and public conversation."

The reviews focus more on whether graffiti and tagging is a crime and less on the story and bigger questions it raises, according to both playwrights.

"We are doing what every playwright has done throughout history," Goodwin said. "To tell complicated stories, complex stories about complex people."

The specific event, a 2010 piece sprayed on the Modern Wing, was meant to be a statement smack in the middle of Downtown in the center of the art world, Coval said.

"I think both of us remember the moment that it went down in real time," Coval said. "I certainly was taken by the courage and the spectacular nature of what it is they did."

Coval teaches the incident in his courses at both UIC and at the Art Institute.

Coval, who is celebrating the 15th year of Louder Than a Bomb, the world's largest youth poetry slam, said the city's young people are in the middle of a renaissance that is centered on music and art.

"I think hip hop culture has given young people a way to traverse the city," he said. "In this moment all eyes, in a lot of ways, are on Chicago because of its young people."

The negative critics also took aim at Steppenwolf for putting on the production.

In a review headlined "Play paints over graffiti's downside," Jones criticizes Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St., for ignoring that "graffiti comes at a price."

"It can be invasive, self-important and disrespectful of the property of others," Jones said. While allowing some of it can be considered art, "artful graffiti is only a subset of the whole."

Graffiti has had "the effect of making people feel unsafe in the city" and has "terrified people," Jones said.

 Kevin Coval, co-author of
Kevin Coval, co-author of "This is Modern Art," being presented at the Steppenwolf Theatre.
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Kevin Coval

Steppenwolf stood by the production Monday and emphasized post-show discussions that take place after each performance.

"We are inspired by the dialog that this exciting new Chicago play has generated among our audiences at the post-show discussions after every performance, in the arts community and on social media," the statement read.

The theater noted that the Young Adults series, which this play is a part of, provides study guides, lesson plans, teaching artists and post-show discussions and events to help contextualize the work for teen audiences.

"We do have to salute all day the care that Steppenwolf has given this story and this play," Coval said. "I don't think that a Chicago hip hip story has been handled with as much care."

The authors credited the theater for taking up the play.

"It's not just middle class people arguing in a living room about their domestic b-------," Goodwin said. "These stories are asking big complicated questions and I think young people, these 'new audiences,' are going to respond to them."

Goodwin said he is interested in writing plays about communities that are rarely seen on the American stage.

Theater industry leaders "aren't presenting stories and characters and institutions and cultures that are contemporary, that are really reflective of the cities we live in," Goodwin said.

Both Weiss and Jones recalled the surge of graffiti in public places in New York, with Weiss calling it "a sort of visual virus" that marked neighborhoods and places as "dangerous, infected with crime, on the decline and a bad place to set up a business."

"In short, it was a form of grand-scale urban self-inflicted mugging," Weiss wrote.

"You don't have be conservative, or somehow not down with youth, to think it reprehensible that these issues do not have place in a show for schools that is staggeringly one-sided," Jones said. "I say [Steppenwolf has] a moral obligation to make [teens] think about the price we all pay."

"Really, what could Steppenwolf have been thinking?" Weiss asked.

The theater group describes the play this way: "Called vandals, criminals, even creative terrorists, Chicago graffiti artists set out night after night to make their voices heard and alter the way people view the world. But when one crew finishes the biggest graffiti bomb of their careers, the consequences get serious and spark a public debate asking, where does art belong?"

On Twitter, opposing viewpoints emerged. "So it's 'deeply misguided' to do show about graffiti because graffiti is urban terrorism. As opposed to 'Animal Farm' and 'Lord of the Flies' ..." wrote @halcyontony. Responded ABwGN: "I'm a fan of graffiti art. But I also have a degree in city planning. There are real costs."

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