Youth and Poetry at the Merrimack Rep and at Mass Poetry

Actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White. Photo by Meghan Moore.

by Jacquelyn Malone

In the same week we ran a story about a teen who despised poetry but was won over by a charismatic poet, I learned the Merrimack Repertory Theatre was producing a play about two teenagers, one of whom hates poetry but is also won over by her uninvited guest and by “Badass poet Walter Whitman.”  The MRT was looking for poets in the Lowell area who could participate in an after-play discussion of poetry and reactions to the play. A friend gave them my name, and when I visited Michael Glicksman, MRT Marketing Associate, and Elizabeth Kegley, MRT Executive Director, to chat about possibilities for discussion, we all realized that adding teens and a teacher from Mass Poetry’s Student Day of Poetry would set the stage – so to speak – for a meaningful conversation on how today’s youth are reacting to poetry.

And what a vigorous play to initiate that discussion! I and You, starring Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, is an explosion of thought, humor, and reflection on art, connection, and identity that, though tremendously sophisticated, never seems outside a teenage world.

As I watched a production I was reminded of the 1980s film My Dinner with Andre, a movie that gets a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes despite the fact that the two characters sit at a table, for the entire film, and discuss life. Anthony and Caroline never leave her room, and the discussions here can be as just as thoughtful, but in I and You they are given urgency by an innate eruption of energy coming from youth and its hunger for meaning. What happens when a strange boy pops into a home-bound convalescent’s room and begins telling her she has to work with him on a project about Leaves of Grass? Their lives seem as different as their taste in music; he loves Coltrane, she loves Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet through Whitman they bond. No spoilers here, but the ending, though it is perfect, you will not see it coming. And it will leave you gasping.

Check out this video from the play and watch the forceful vitality of the two actors.   

Masconomet teacher and student

After the play on October 28 Masconomet teacher Shannon Murphy will be joining me on stage along with four of her students, Rachel Arone, Jacqué Rhuda, Mariah Guiry, and Joey Ciampa. We will be talking about our reactions to the play as well as taking audience questions.

I and You, which runs through November 1, will be moving on to Off-Broadway at the beginning of the year. It was written by award winning playwright Lauren Gunderson and directed by Sean Daniels who is in his first year as Artistic Director of the MRT. With this play as a signal, his tenure is off to a rousing start.

Why poetry?

In the play’s program, there is an interview with the playwright. She is asked “Of all the things these characters could be studying, why poetry?” Gunderson’s answer:

It was less that I wanted them to study poetry and more that I wanted them to study Walt Whitman. He’s both a rebel of America, and a perfect embodiment of an American. His work broke all these rules at the time, and he spoke to so many people.

It’s so much about the body, and the soul, and these kinds of things we share in a democratic sense of the American human experience. And that just seemed to fit at every level with what I was trying to say with Anthony and Caroline’s relationship.

Our invitation

So Shannon and her students and I, along with the staff of MRT, hope you will come out on October 28 to see both the play and hear our comments on poetry and our reaction to the drama. And if you can’t make it that night, then by all means try to see this play before you have to drive all the way to New York to catch a performance!

The show runs through November 1st at the MRT, 50 East Merrimack Street in Lowell.