As a well-known, much-loved story premiered at the Guthrie last weekend, a new play did the same at Pillsbury House. Both have race relations as an underlying theme, but that's where any similarity between "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Prep" ends.
Tracey Scott Wilson's tautly written "Prep" is as bold, modern and raw as "Mockingbird" is time-tested and familiar. Close friends Chris (Kory LaQuess Pullam) and Oliver (Ryan Colbert) alternate monologues with streetwise, good-hearted Miss Michelle (Jodi Kellogg), the principal of their poor inner-city school. A good guy nicknamed "The Rev," Chris is destined for greatness, while weed-toking, girl-crazy layabout Oliver appears headed down a nonachiever's path.
Frustrated into a near-crazed state by the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other headline-making deaths of unarmed blacks, Chris decides to take a martyr's stand because he just wants "something to matter ... probably gonna get shot anyway. Might as well make it mean something." What follows, on the day of a field trip to an upper-class prep school, sends all three characters out onto different, shaky limbs.
Gripping, honest and well-paced, the production's most impressive accomplishment is that all of the dialogue is delivered in a catchy, listen-up style — half prose, half rap — that never seems affected, even in the white middle-aged principal's voice. That's a testament to both Noël Raymond's deft direction and the actors' immersion into their characters.
Both young men command the stage when it's their turn, Chris all idealistic zealotry and Oliver a lackadaisical joker. As the well-meaning principal, Kellogg has the thinnest line to walk to avoid ringing false, but does so with ease and spark.
Wilson's script winds up to an unexpected but credible ending. Raymond's discipline never allows the briskly told, interconnected stories to spiral off into wasted moments. Joe Stanley's spare set — bare but for a few risers in muted tones of gray — is a perfect foil for Michael Wangen's dramatic lighting, focused on whoever's speaking. The boys' utterly believable physicality brings welcome bursts of action to all the talk.
If "Prep" were universally required viewing, no one might ever again fire back at "black lives matter" with the clueless auto-response "all lives matter." Because this play makes you feel what it's like to be a black kid, especially a black boy, in America. Even if you're a middle-aged white lady.