When one thinks of poetry based theatre pieces, they can either be performance triumphs or utter disasters. When I heard Slam Team was such a piece, I will admit I was a tad nervous. Written by poet and playwright Gina Inzunza and directed by Marcus Yi, this was a risk. As a critic, performer, and theatergoer, I knew the experience beforehand left me with mixed emotions. However, I would soon be proven wrong. Slam Team turned out to be a slam dunk.
A well crafted tale, Slam Team is the story of four high school kids at Manhattan High School For The Arts that start an after school poetry club. All four are lovable mixtures of philosopher, out of the box thinker, and rebel without a hall pass in a blender. The characters are Lorna the founder of the club. Played believably and skillfully by Nicola McEldowney, she frequently butts heads with her father who wants her to be a violinist, but her true desire is to be in a rock band. Then there is Jonathan, the gay friend and sometimes moderate, calm foil to those around him. Portrayed with a likable vulnerability by Nick Imperato, Jonathan also battles with familial acceptance of his homosexuality as well as an absentee father who often tries to buy his son’s affection with money. Of course there is Lulu, a gifted artist who often butts heads with her strict parents. Given a quirky charm by actress Thanh Ta, she is often the comic relief who struggles with promiscuity and has shoplifted, traps some young women fall into. Lastly, to round out the group is Dario, a student from the Dominican Republic who is an illegal immigrant. Luis Restrepo gives Dario a youthful energy and a sort of freshness and is brilliantly juxtaposed with the fact the young man works and has lived well beyond his years.
During this period other themes are explored. Lulu has an obvious crush on Dario. When she sees her would be beau with his arm around another girl, her heart falls. Despite her fast pace when it comes to men, she has a soft heart and truly wants to be loved and accepted. Jonathan later finds out the girl was Dario’s cousin, a freshmen who is being made fun of because of her accent. It is later revealed both Dario and his cousin are able to attend the school because of their uncle’s work as a janitor. This is also a highlight on the racist elitism that can exist within some of the top schools still. The two begin a budding romance. Instantly, the audience is drawn to this high school love story, and through empathy, experience, and a pure wish for a happy outcome we are rooting for them.
Dario proves to be a good perspective boyfriend, and does not judge Lulu for her past with men and shoplifting. Rather, he appreciates her talent as a visual artist. With his help, Lulu moves in a positive direction and builds a website for her art.
Meanwhile, Jonathan pours his heart out revealing he had a crush that lived next door to him. He says Neighbor Boy doesn’t come around but doesn’t say why. Later it is revealed that Neighbor Boy was killed after wearing a rainbow tie. It is implied it was a gay bashing. While heavy and heart wrenching, the theme is also relevant to the struggle for LGBTQ Rights, and the unfortunate bigotry many gay teens are still subject to. Rather than anger, Jonathan turns it into art.
Lorna, meanwhile, fights to keep Dario in the US by enlisting the help of her father’s friend who is an immigration lawyer. The gang teams together, and decides to enter the talent show. They decide to do a well composed piece on freedom. However, the night of the talent show Dario is a no show. It is revealed that he has jumped a turn style because he did not have money to buy a Metro Card. Due to the fact he had no ID and was illegal, he is being detained and possibly deported.
Dario is then shown in jail orange, as he does a spoken word peace about his struggles for freedom. It is unclear whether or not he was deported, and this is never revealed. In the wake of this crisis, the Slam Team goes onstage without their lynch pin, and are at first heckled. However, Lorna then silences the heckler and begins the peace. The show ends not only in a spectacular fashion, but there is also not a dry eye in the house.
While the acting was excellent, much of the credit belongs to the creative pairing of Yi and Inzunza. The casting choices and direction were perfect, making the story believable. The tale was masterfully written with dialogue that had a nice mixture of stark realism and innocent humor. These teenagers were true embodiments of young dreamers, and as an audience we were cheering for them every step of the way. Additionally, the poetry was well written, thought provoking, high energy, and at times fun. Not many poets are also gifted playwrights. Inzunza has the rare gift of being both.
Slam Team shows this generation of writers, thinkers, and dreamers is far from being doomed. Energy for creativity and change is alive and well as it has always been. The message is, always keep an open heart, an open mind, and above all things, leave room for poetry.