How powerful can one image be?
The photo of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy, washed up on a beach before his parents could reach refuge in Europe, opened hearts and minds to the wave of people fleeing conflict and chaos in the Middle East.
One of the students in "Prep," a new play by Tracey Scott Wilson set in a tough urban school, dreams of a similar game-changer. Christopher wants to bring attention to the harshness he has to navigate daily in order to get an education. What he proposes to do, however, would be personally tragic and catastrophic without any guarantee that it would have a positive effect on public education, and the issues that schools confront.
"He's really smart and troubled," said Faye Price, artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre, where "Prep" premiered this weekend. "But he thinks that desperate situations call for desperate measures."
Ask the playwright about the genesis of "Prep," and Wilson mentions news-making incidents that served as triggers for her latest work.
An overburdened system
One was the lunchroom fight at Minneapolis South High School in 2013 that betrayed tensions between African-American and Somali-American kids.
A cheating scandal in Atlanta, in which teachers and administrators were caught helping students to do well on tests, was another catalyst.
But those episodes were only the beginning for Wilson, a writer for the FX series "The Americans" and author of such plays as "Buzzer" and "The Story." She often takes nuggets of ideas and whirls them around until she finds something new or revelatory in them.
The cheating scandal and the intercultural tensions that gave initial rise to her play are nowhere to be found in it.
"Prep" centers on students Chris and Oliver, as well as their principal. The play also features more than two dozen disembodied voices — voices that echo the discussion and noise surrounding education today.
The characters face a myriad of challenges as they work to feed their intellects in an educational system overburdened by the weight of social problems.
"The schools are in a situation where they are asked to solve issues that spring from deeply embedded structural problems," said Wilson, who tends to sound like a political commentator or a professor when she talks. "The problem is not the schools, or that you might have a few bad teachers.
"It's the fact that our society is effed up, and you're asking schools to deal with problems created by housing discrimination, by the fact that there's basically continuous economic depression in the urban areas."
Third play at Pillsbury House
This is the third Wilson play that Pillsbury House is presenting. Playwright and theater have similar interests in work that is grounded in real-world issues and, at the same time, pushes the field forward.
"Tracey is so political by nature and such a theater hound that she's always looking for ways to take these difficult stories and put them onstage in a dramatic way," Price said.
Wilson grew up in New Jersey, the last of four children. Her father was head of maintenance for the Port Authority, and her mother was a nurse. (Her two sisters went into health care, while her brother became a filmmaker.)
She wanted to be a journalist, in part to tell stories. But she found her medium on the stage, where she could engage issues with more creative latitude. "Buzzer" dealt with the effects of gentrification on a black gentrifier, his white girlfriend and an old male friend who's an addict. "The Story" dealt with truth in journalism.
Director Noël Raymond said what she likes about "Prep" is its language is "so spare and compressed. It's a one-act, but it's epic, and Shakespearean, in a way. You have to tune your ear to it, but when you do, it's really rewarding."
Price seconded that thought, saying that this type of work shows the relevance of theater at a time of great social, technological and demographic change.
"As everyone knows, there are huge gaps in educational outcomes for kids," she said. "If we can bring this subject to greater light theatrically, then that's what we'll do to keep that discussion going until the disparities change."