Broken Nose’s Primer Breaks Down Prioritizing “Property Over People”

In the summer of 2020 it felt like the world was going to change, all at once, for the better. Across the country, around the world, people took to the streets to demand justice and call for equity and inclusion. For what felt like a good long moment, people came together around their shared humanity and demanded accountability and reform.  

And then?

With Primer, Broken Nose Theatre’s world premiere audio drama, playwright Spenser Davis puts us smack in the middle of the wreckage of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on the morning after the riots and looting sparked by police brutality in the Black community. 

Davis brings us to the first floor of Brady’s–the barely fictitious department store that served as the backdrop for his award-winning Plainclothes–to give a lesson on the anger and frustration that boils beneath the surface, even along the most iconic stretch of Michigan Avenue. 

Skillfully directed by Brittney Brown, Primer tells the story of a cast of characters from across the city’s identity spectrum, brought together in the wake of the damage done. Kim Boler plays Stevie, a Chicago cop who answers the call to the scene on the night of the riot and then can’t shake the feeling that she has no right to be happy given what she’s seen. If Stevie struggles to get past the meaning behind the broken glass of the night, Nora, played by Brenda Scott Wlazo, has no such trouble. After Stevie heads into the late night chaos to begin the audio play, Nora steps into the corporate boardroom to pitch a trip of her own into the detritus of the Chicago landmark store to sell a solution the next morning. Both Boler and Wlazo are excellent in their juxtaposed roles of protector and profiteer, lost soul and soulless vulture.  

Speaking of juxtaposed characters and excellent voice-acting, enter Rian (E.M. Davis) and Jerrod (David Weiss) the remnants of the first-floor plainclothes Brady’s security-team charged with what now appears to be the impossible task of keeping the store and its merchandise safe. As they assess the damage for the insurance claim, Rian works to understand the feeling behind the events of the night before, while Jerrod can’t get past the senseless nature of the violence. 

With the strength of the ensemble’s varied voices set in place by the first three chapters of audio action, Davis smartly speeds the story across the remaining 12 chapters of a day spent making meaning while breathing in the toxic fumes of mixed perfumes and walking on shards of glass from broken bottles and smashed jewelry display cases. 

The unwitting heroes on this work-day journey are Chaddie (J.D. Caudill), Jai (Watson Swift), and Kennedy (Ari Szalai-Raymond), the cosmetics team tasked with boxing up the product to prepare for their company’s hasty exit from the Michigan Avenue location. Caudill, Swift, and Szalai-Raymond give a trio of strong, stereotype-defying performances. Caudill’s Chaddie is strong-willed, funny, and smart, if, at times, guilty of false praise. Szalai-Raymond’s Kennedy is wonderfully, excruciatingly sanctimonious and hilariously, unapologetically self-aggrandizing. 

Davis’s dialogue crackles as the tension builds between Kennedy, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist who virtue-signals her way through every conversation, and Chaddie, a transgender cosmetologist and budding labor organizer with a gift for making people feel beautiful, as they debate and then flat out argue about the best way to change the world.   

For all the energy and witty exchanges between the security team and cosmetologists, the heart and soul of the audio play comes in RjW May’s extraordinary Ms. Mary, the first-floor manager with more than twenty frustration-filled years of experience spent working at Brady’s. 

Ms. Mary’s post-riot workday begins with the promise of an email from management about a meeting that will outline Brady’s response to the events of the night before. This is the meeting Mary has been waiting for, but Nora’s presentation isn’t exactly the response she is hoping to hear. With her no-nonsense, voice-of-hope turned voice-of-outrage performance, May brings depth, gravity, and truth to a play that may have, otherwise, sounded a little like a series of audio caricatures.

Primer is a rewarding, well-made audio experience, but it’s also a tough listen, and intentionally so. The radio play format serves as an effective vehicle for opening the imagination to the rage caused by race, class, and gender discimination, and the fury that builds over time as the world mindlessly moves on without effectively dealing with injustice. We can listen and relisten, pause the action, think for a while, and return. 

Primer challenges us. It shakes us from our preconceived notions. But it comes at a price.

More than a year after the scenes of boarded-up windows on Michigan Avenue, Primer tells a compelling story about a time that many people might prefer to forget. In the service of greater understanding, Davis, Brown, and the Broken Nose ensemble ask us to look back and rethink a certain type of reaction to the same injustice that brought millions of people together in peaceful protest, the type of reaction that makes us uncomfortable. Like Mary, Chaddie, Kennedy, Rian, Jai, Stevie, and Jerrod, we are asked to sift through the wreckage of the looting and riots and consider our shared humanity and the ongoing pain and suffering of those that have too often been overlooked.

Broken Nose Theatre world premiere audio drama Primer will stream on-demand from November 15 – December 5, 2021 at brokennosetheatre.com, so audience members may listen at their leisure. Tickets are currently available at brokennosetheatre.com. Tickets for all Broken Nose Theatre performances are “Pay-What-You-Can,” allowing patrons to set their own price.        

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