In David Jacobi’s Ready Steady Yeti Go, when a hate crime targets the home of Carly, the only black student in her suburban school, the adults, despite their best intentions, still perpetuate worrisome sentiments even if they do not directly express racial animosity. How young people learn about racism extends well beyond the halls of their schools. Parents may not even realize the powerful subtlety of their routine behaviors in showing their children how pervasive racism actually is in their neighborhoods.
The Wasatch Theatre Company (WTC), the resident theatrical organization at The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, is presenting Jacobi’s play in a production, directed by Tristan B. Johnson, which snaps spiritedly with worthwhile performances by its cast of five young actors.
The main characters are cast as middle school students. The most interesting interactions and performances involve Carly (Trinidad Allen) and Goon (Michael Davies), who develop a young romance after the incident. Goon and his twin brother Gandry (Sterling Shane Allen) are developed pretty much the same as the classic Goofus and Gallant comic series that ran forever in the Highlights for Children magazine, the mainstay publication of elementary schools and waiting rooms in physicians’ offices for many years. Everyone sees Goon and Gandry in the same stark binary dynamic as the ‘bad’ Goofus and the ‘good’ Gallant. The show’s vibe evokes the period when Highlights for Children was part of every kid’s elementary school ritual.
However, Carly sees Goon differently and it becomes apparent that who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ belies the disturbing realities that emerge in Jacobi’s story. Rounding out the ensemble are Wikipedia Jones, a wanna-be-detective and the police chief’s son (T. J. Hunter) and his equally irritating sidekick Katie (Savannah Moffat).
The actors periodically assume adult characters, none of whom rise to dealing effectively with a horrible incident in their community. There are breathless preparations for a school rally to “destroy racism forever,” a tragicomedic gesture of misdirected awkwardness in epic proportions. Carly especially is exasperated at the way her parents are being seen and portrayed.
There are significant strengths and distracting weaknesses in Jacobi’s play, which was workshopped several years as part of the Salt Lake Acting Company’s Playwrights Lab. Jacobi successfully captures the credible voices of 12- and 13-year-old children. However, the play’s flow is more jagged and rocky than it could be, with the restless procession of short scenes punctuated by the cry of “Ready Steady Yeti Go.” The play was a semi-finalist for the American Playwriting Foundation’s 2016 Relentless Award.
The actors do admirable justice to the major epiphanies in the script and, in numerous instances, they consciously try to supersede the caricatures representing the adults in the story, an element that Jacobi emphasizes more than necessary in the dialogue he was written. A few audience members laughed out loud frequently, sometimes at moments when more subtle reactions would have emboldened the actors’ efforts to shape their characters with more depth. More often, an audience member’s laugh indicates a defense mechanism activated by their own discomfort in discussing the realities of racism.
The budding relationship between Carly and Goon challenges parents and teachers to go beyond superficial rhetoric in talking about racism. It is more useful for adults to ponder more critically the manner in which they carry out their routine behaviors, responses and reactions and those actions might reproduce precisely the reprehensible expressions of racism that shocked Carly and her family and left the community scrambling to respond in the best way possible.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 28 and Feb. 29 at The Box, the WTC theater at 142 South 400 West on the eastern edge of The Gateway. WTC’s next show, Girls and Boys, opens March 6.
For more information, see the Wasatch Theatre Company website.