The Positive Evolution of Bongo Baker/What's So Big About Growing Up? | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Positive Evolution of Bongo Baker/What's So Big About Growing Up? 

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THE POSITIVE EVOLUTION OF BONGO BAKER

ETA Creative Arts Foundation

Good playwrights weave their opinions into the fabric of a play, understanding that exhortations shatter the dramatic illusion and transform their plays into sermons delivered through thinly disguised surrogates. Unfortunately, far too many playwrights seem to believe this rule doesn't apply to children's theater.

The Positive Evolution of Bongo Baker is about peer pressure, a perfectly valid topic for a show aimed at young people. At first playwright Runako Jahi handles this issue by showing it in action. Bongo, a struggling student at an inner-city school, wants to study hard and get good grades, but he knows his classmates will make fun of him if he does. When his teacher, Mr. Lemon, asks Bongo who the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar is, another student sneers, "Maaan, you answer that question, they gon' think you a girl."

But after this promising beginning the playwright becomes increasingly heavy-handed as he pounds home the idea that peer pressure is dangerous. "Our friends may have good intentions, but they don't always know what's best," Bongo says, obviously speaking for the playwright. Jahi also has his characters criticize parents who, through neglect, allow peer pressure to gain control over their children. "I needed somebody to go behind me to make sure my assignments were completed," says Nathan B. Stupid, a member of a rap singing chorus. "I needed someone to show some interest in what I was doing in school." Parents who show love and guidance, promises another character, will have children "who will not succumb to the kind of peer pressure that can destroy both themselves and others."

The production of Bongo Baker at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation is sincere and full of energy. Cast members sing to the accompaniment of a trio led by Wanda Bishop, who wrote the music for the show. Donn Carl Harper transforms himself into a nervous nerd as Bongo. Mark Townsend garners plenty of laughs with his portrayal of the nerdy Mr. Lemon. And Bernadette Clarke seems to leap all over the stage and ricochet off the walls as Bongo's hyperactive girlfriend, T-Baby.

But despite the aggressive way it delivers its message, the play itself just isn't very convincing.

WHAT'S SO BIG ABOUT GROWING UP?

Kid Think, Ink.
at Improv Institute

What's So Big About Growing Up? takes a lighter approach, but here too the playwright seems to feel obligated to spell out the Message.

Veronica Petrillo Frehe developed the vignettes in her play using the writings of students at Carpenter elementary school. Aimed at a preadolescent audience, the musical deals with such childhood problems as making friends, fighting with siblings, and coping with demanding parents. Michael Zoll portrays a little boy named Brian, who's dominated by his older sister Beth (Carolyn Kodes). Glen Brown plays an older boy named Joey, who receives a visit from Sally, his Skokie pen pal, played by Frehe herself.

Some of the material is charming and clever. Before the "Pocket Song" the four performers go through the audience asking children what they have in their pockets. And during "Reynold's Rap" Brown wears a baseball cap with a box of Reynolds aluminum foil pasted to the brim.

But the name of the production company is Kid Think, Ink., and Frehe's efforts to provoke thought frequently lead to a preachy treatment of such issues as emotions ("There are lots of things to get mad about"), the environment ("We've got to save the earth from the trash trap"), and fear of being different ("If we were all the same, how boring it would be"). Fortunately, these sermonettes are diluted by lots of music and laughter, but they still cast a righteous pall over the entertainment. Do kids really benefit from entertainment that is so aggressively good for them?

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