Credible youth voices are not easy to find on the contemporary stage, so their abundance in “Yellowjackets” is enough to keep this Berkeley Rep world premiere fresh moment-to-moment even as the whole wanders in search of an indistinct point. Playwright Itamar Moses (“The Four of Us”) graduated from Berkeley High in 1994, the setting for this juicy if ultimately unsatisfying drama. His characters (at least the underage ones) are fascinatingly delineated by idiosyncratic speech, and helmer Tony Taccone’s doublecast actors all play both adult and teen parts.
At the time Moses attended Berkeley High, the school was wrestling with whether to continue tracked classes, which divided certain essential courses in two: one for academically high-functioning students, another for low-performing ones. Although this allowed students to learn at their own pace, it also resulted in classes being divided down racial lines — white and Asian-American students tending to land in the upper bracket, with African-American and Latin kids in the lower. Inevitably, much of “Yellowjackets” pivots around questions of racism vs. political correctitude, and at what point the latter strangles useful discussion of the former.
A fight between Berkeley students and kids from another East Bay town alarms school authorities, not least because the vice principal got his arm broken trying to break it up. No one will confess to participating, though graffiti artist Damian (Shoresh Alaudini) privately brags he started the brawl and was the inadvertent limb-breaker.
A former troublemaker himself now one of the school’s security staff, Damian’s older sib Rashid (Lance Gardner) is furious that his brother nonchalantly risked suspension. Star basketball player and semi-g.f. Tamika (Jahmela Biggs) isn’t too pleased with the path Damian’s headed down, either.
Meanwhile, geeky Avi (Ben Freeman) is the school newspaper’s incoming editor-in-chief, to the open resentment of overachieving Gwen (Adrienne Papp). He’s mortified when the first issue under his watch sparks a boycott: African-American teacher Ms. Robbins (Biggs) takes offense at the story about the fight because it notes the racial identities (black and Latino) of the suspected perps.
Ms. Robbins considers this the final straw in a history of racial slights, “not malicious but insidious,” in the student publication. Avi frantically tries to appease her, only to find a mysterious error in the following issue prompts even stronger outrage from Mr. Behzad (Brian Rivera), who takes personally the school’s lack of a Latino Studies Department.Racial issues also are relevant in the myriad, unequally developed subplots Moses weaves in, notably Avi’s secret romance with photo editor Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax), and scrawny Trevor’s (Craig Piaget) bullying by plus-sized classmate Guillem (Brian Rivera).
If the adult characters are fairly broad archetypes (albeit of a recognizably Berkeley ilk), the playwright and cast find depth, humor and sharply drawn personalities in each of the younger characters. Even the many annoyingly self-absorbed or irresponsible ones express themselves in refreshingly distinctive terms, from Avi’s sputtering mediations to Damian’s natural gift for obfuscation and prankster Ryan’s (Alex Curtis) surreal non sequiturs.
Perhaps there’s just too much going on for “Yellowjackets” to feel like it has an actual destination.
Instead, the play’s heavy agenda crushes its last lap, in which a long, didactic argument between two characters and contrived peacemaking between two more play like strained attempts to wrap up a drama that astutely acknowledges there are no such easy resolutions.
That said, the preceding two hours are consistently bright and entertaining. Taccone’s premiere production is bursting with unforced youthful energy, requiring little in the way of physical spectacle. Annie Smart’s set is just a chain-link fence before a graffiti-filled wall (painted by Sam Fishman); other design contribs are equally, incisively spare.