Chicago's Playwright Puts Us On Stage: Ike Holter's 'Rightlynd'
Ike Holter’s Rightlynd is the seventh produced play of his Chicago cycle that chronicles our hurting and corrupt city through the eyes of its citizens. These plays are often about people becoming the very thing they hate in a city they love. And this play is chronologically first, following the trajectory of alderman hopeful Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco) in Chicago’s fictional 51st ward, Rightlynd. With the rise of gangs and gentrification, Esposito hopes to restore Rightlynd to its historic roots, where her own family previously operated a bodega around the corner.
At this point, Holter has a cult following. Equipped with biting, fast-paced dialogue, guffaw-worthy jokes, and POC representation, his plays live and breathe among us. Holter is Chicago on stage. But Rightlynd feels a bit out of place as this stir crazy story jumps genres. It’s musical-esque, with choice scenes including singing and dancing; there’s detective noir with an ethics-bound journalist dictating his writing; and a sprinkle of rom-com that ends in devastation.
Every character has a story, but they don’t seem to be living in the same one, and maybe that’s the point. When we enter Rightlynd, we are thrown into the hustle and bustle of people on the go. In the background are three storefronts in various states of disarray, one serving as a newspaper office from where a journalist preaches his writing (scenic design by Collette Pollard). Though stunningly distressed in shades of black and gray with an archway plastered in newspapers, the relationship between characters and these spaces are not always clear. Nevertheless, Lisa Portes directs a dynamic ensemble that puts their whole selves into every scene.
This is especially true of actor Jerome Black, our main villain, an avatar of a giant real estate conglomerate and developer: Applewood. He’s looking to put up condos without a conscience. Applewood sings the old tune of gentrifiers: prosperity comes with tearing down the old and embracing the new. Though the 51st ward is fictional, Applewood and what he represents is very much real. This name seems a mashup of the Alphawood Foundation and Apple, organizations that both carry controversy and mystery. It’s maybe the most recognizable of Holter’s inversion of our world and Rightlynd’s. This villain is real and does much to intensify the spaces he inhabits.
Rightlynd would benefit from more of this intensity overall. The musical outbreaks feel like an emotional cop out, even if the actors Robert Cornelius and Sasha Smith have voices that are so complementary, practically stealing the limelight from soon-to-be lovebirds. These scene do much to forward the plot, but so much of Holter’s clever rollercoaster dialogue gets stuck on the tracks when transformed into song. This play feels like a climb, and I don’t think we ever reach the top. The play functions as the backstory of Esposito, who is mentioned in Holter’s other plays, and we watch as her resolve for the greater good of everyone is ultimately corrupted in the face of personal pursuits. We are left wondering what is up next for a city that seems to corrupt everyone. Even the good guys aren’t that good and perhaps the thought that there even are any good guys is actually a myth. So much is building up, but we’ll never truly know the results until much later down the road, much like life and it’s unbelievably annoying twist and turns.
Originally published as a part of Rescripted’s The Key Mentorship Program
Rightlynd was recently extended and runs at Victory Gardens Theater until December 30th.