By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association; original art by Mary Williamson
With the Chicago theatre scene about to reopen (indeed, there are live and in-person shows in some venues opening this week), the Goodman Theatre is bringing its online-only offerings to a close with a live-on-video production of Ike Holter’s I Hate It Here, a show that—though parts of it were written pre-pandemic—accurately sums up the emotional response most of us have had to the past 18 months. Featuring a six-actor ensemble (plus a “special guest”), the 70-minute show consists of a series of scenes that zoom (no pun intended) in on the things we’ve all had to deal with, all of which echo the refrain of the opening song: “This has been the worst year.” Not exactly a philosophically or rhetorically remarkable sentiment, but it’s what we all have felt. (I have the memes to prove it.)
From the play’s opening, in which characters briefly bemoan some of their peeves and issues about the pandemic—”I’m so sick of people saying ‘How are you,’ just so evil“; “Basically I’m just pretending everything’s one big TV show, landlord hitting me up I’m like “tune in next week”; “Now it’s like every text I send at a protest could be my ‘last words, ever'”—Holter’s script feels as raw and real as the pandemic itself. And it’s not even over when it’s over (as anyone who is planning a summer trip to a red state hot zone already knows). In the end, one character complains, “Look something legit broke, Ok but now we’re supposed to just ‘go back to before’ and THAT’s the creepiest shit to me.”
Director Lili-Anne Brown keeps things moving briskly from scene to scene as her ensemble (Patrick Agada, Jayson Brooks, Sydney Charles, Behzad Dabu, Kristen Fitzgerald, and Gabriel Ruiz) deliver Holter’s exciting, lightning-quick dialogue as if it were the end of the world. (Of course, for all these characters know, it is.) In doing so, they create many brilliant moments. Charles’ teenage Ashawna describes a hoodlum in her school who is damned with faint praise even by family members: “if you family and the highest regard you can drop bout your step-brother’s bastard son is ‘he’s a’ight’ wellllll then that crispity crunchity peanut buttery bobble-headed bitch must be a lil puke of ill repute and I don’t have the time.” Dabu’s Manny describes the scene he encounters during a pandemic job: “Everybody in the breakroom is wearing white, White-white, Fucking Chlorox bleach snow capped mountains old actvia yogurt WHITE.” Charles again, this time as a teacher: “How come young people keep living through terrible shit that’s supposed to change the world but by the time they pop some kids out they forget to tell ‘em bout that terrible shit so when the next gen falls up in the same damn shit their parents already did they all like ‘!????! oh that’s some terrible shit!”
Most of these scenes are fairly short, but one scene takes its time as it builds from a simple wedding reception scene to a powerful commentary on systemic racism in a conversation between wedding organizer Lisa (Fitzgerald) and pretty much the only Black guest (Thomas, played subtly and poignantly by Agada) with whom she shared a horrific past event that left much more of an impression on him than on her. It’s a scene that is not about the pandemic but absolutely evokes the racial reckoning in the wake of the George Floyd murder—the other huge story of 2020. Fitzgerald’s clueless, bubble-enclosed suburbanite burbles awkwardly as the conversation moves from mundane to personal. Far slower in both pacing and linguistic style than the rest of the play, this scene is a deep dive into the reality of racism in today’s USA, practically demanding an emotional response. But Holter follows it with scenes about the futility of activism, as we see that even a “successful” and very simple and localized piece of activism (petitioning City Hall to get a new stop sign for a dangerous intersection) ultimately comes to nothing when drivers simply don’t heed it. (It’s easy here to ponder the equal frustration of seeing idiots refusing to get free and easy vaccinations that could end all of this pandemic crap.)
Holter and Brown are not trying here to put a coda on the pandemic. They both are keenly aware that it and its effects are not and may never be over. In the final, emotional monologue Charlotte (played by that guest actor), tries desperately to get past everything she has lost: “I have a, I have ‘a list’ of the things, I do, once a day, to remind me that life doesn’t stop just because everything you know has ended. It moves on, quite quickly, actually, and And if you don’t move on with it, it runs you over, and then you’re even more mad because you never had a chance to get over the first time it hit you.” This play is something like that. We are definitely not yet over the things that COVID and 2020 wrought, but it’s time to move on anyway, as hard as that might be. This thoroughly engaging, timely, and provocative piece of theatre isn’t the last word on what we’ve been through, but it is the perfect statement of how we are feeling about it right now.
I Hate It Here is available to view only through Sunday, July 18, through Goodman Theatre’s website.