Solomon: “What was the point?”
Diwata: “To take a risk, to get noticed…. I’m ready to be noticed.” (Karam, Speech & Debate)
The above quote occurs in a conversation between Diwata and Solomon about a recent audition that had not gone as Diwata hoped. She takes a chance and performs a song in an original way, and the choice backfires. Though a specific moment in the play, the quote also acts as a lovely theme for Karam’s story. When a student – or anyone, is ignored and constantly put down, it is only natural to try and find some way to shine, and to make one’s voice heard.
Brown Paper Box Co presents Speech & Debate
Written by Stephen Karam (2016 Tony Award for Best Play, The Humans) and directed by David Lipschutz, Speech & Debate follows a group of three high school students in Salem, Oregon – Howie (Trevor Bates), a new transfer student trying to start a Gay/Straight Alliance; Solomon (Darren Patin), a young journalist with a passion for the truth; and Diwata (Deanalís Resto), an artist who just wants a chance to shine as a performer. Each has their own secrets to hide, from sexual identity to past choices and actions they wish they could change.
When the trio is brought together to form a Speech and Debate team for their high school, they realize that it is those very secrets that makes them unique, and can even have the potential to bring them closer.The two adult characters present in the play - Teacher and Reporter (Elise Marie Davis) act as the individuals who oppress the student voices, and the force that the students must overcome. Over the course of the play, Karam makes it clear that everyone deserves to be heard, no matter how young or seemingly powerless, and by no means should they ever apologize.
Karam crafts a realistic and honest story about three teenage students simply trying to find their way in a world in which they feel they do not belong. Karam cleverly reveals the backstories of these three characters over the course of the play through conversations, not only making the story feel authentic, but also providing the script with a forward momentum that keeps the audience engaged. Karam clearly captures the fears of these characters in a way that is relatable, and this reviewer does not want to reveal the ending, but the script masterfully carries a tension that continues to bubble until it simply cannot wait and must burst, which is a moment for which the audience is anxiously waiting.
The stage is simple, with use of school desks and chairs that move about the space to represent the various locations, as well as a large screen in the back that allows for projections. Scenic Designer Torrey Meyer and Lighting/Projections Designer Erin Pleake collaborate to utilize this screen to add an extra level to the design.
A large element of the play discusses online activities at home – from Diwata’s podcast that she airs about her life, to Solomon’s research for his journalistic pursuits, and Howie’s use of online chatrooms. Lipschutz and Meyer split the stage itself into three sections through pushing aside the desks, creating three “bedrooms,” and Pleake in turn splits the screen into three sections, with the far left for Solomon’s room, the middle for Diwata, and the far right for Howie. In addition, the audience can see online chats and websites projected on the screen, allowing them a window into the activities of the teenagers. The use of the screen is effective, and adds a nice touch to the production.
This is a story about three high-school students finding their voice in the midst of a world that makes them feel out-of-place, and these performers bring that to life.
Patin’s Solomon is sweet, and the actor appropriately brings out the pain and inner conflict of the character. Solomon is struggling with quite a bit in the play – from coming to terms with his identity, to his passion for truth as a writer for a school newspaper that is not ready to accept his voice. Patin plays that struggle with an honesty that makes it impossible not to feel for him.
Howie is another complicated character. Being new to the school, he has a lot to prove, and a past that he is not ready to admit. Bates carries an authentic quality to that struggle as well, especially towards the end of the play as his walls come down and he starts to share his truth with Solomon and Diwatta.
Finally, Resto is hilarious, and offers a lovely compliment to the other two. While Howie and Solomon are a little more reserved, Diwata is loud and ready to steal the stage, and Resto’s comedic timing certainly rises to the occasion. From the very moment she enters and shares her podcast on the injustice of her high school’s casting of the spring musical, the audience was with her could not stop laughing.
Especially in the midst of a time that is so focused on shedding light on oppressed voices, Speech & Debate is a story that should be heard. Even young voices carry strength, and Karam’s thought-provoking story acts as a powerful reminder.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
For more, take a look at a previous Picture this Post review of the published script of Speech & Debate.
Also see the Picture this Post review of The Humans, currently running through February 11, 2018 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre with Broadway in Chicago.
Playing through March 4, 2018
Mondays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:30pm
Run Time: 2 hours, with intermission.
The Edge Theatre
5451 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60640
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.