On a certain level, it feels irrelevant to discuss whether or not Steppenwolf for Young Adult’s (SYA) production of “Monster” is good (don’t worry, it is). Thee play’s identity lies not in its quality, but its relevance to the current state of race in the United States and the message it sends to its audience.
“Monster,” adapted by Aaron Carter from Walter Dean Myers’ bestselling novel of the same name, lets us inside the world of Steve Harmon (Daniel Kyri), a 16-year- old black, aspiring filmmaker from Harlem whose alleged involvement in a drug store robbery puts him on trial for murder. The show’s greatest strength is showing the action through Steve’s eyes. By exploring this perspective, “Monster” gives the audience an all-encompassing portrait of a young man coping with trauma using the tools he has.
The show doesn’t care, and doesn’t ask the audience to care, whether or not Steve is guilty. “Monster” focuses on how the trial affects Steve’s self identity.
The show’s ensemble cast all portray multiple characters, allowing the audience to view the identity crisis from Steve’s perspective. Throughout the play, the audience sees Steve drawing in a composition notebook, the only outlet he has to express his anxiety. At key moments, Steve rips out drawings from the notebook and places them on the back wall, allowing the audience to view a collage of the trial as Steve sees it — intense fear and turmoil.
It’s a shame the audience didn’t get to see Steve’s true personality until the last moments of the play. The reveal of the culmination of Steve’s art at the end of the play is particularly heartbreaking because the audience hasn’t seen it before. The unveiling of Steve’s art serves as a catharsis of tension to see Steve arrive at his true identity as a filmmaker.
The emotional impact of “Monster” is all the more effective due to the outreach initiatives SYA is creating. In addition to free weekday school performances, SYA is bringing the production to three juvenile detention facilities across Illinois in conjunction with Storycatchers Theatre, a nonprofit organization that assists youth in those facilities to create and perform original works of theatre.
By touring the production, SYA actively provides incarcerated youth with an opportunity to see themselves reflected onstage in an empathic, sincere light. These initiatives sit in the back of the mind during the show, but the knowledge that SYA is talking the talk and walking the walk makes the messages “Monster” sends all the more poignant.
In the larger context of the issue, you don’t have to be a young black man accused of murder to identify with the show. Even though Steve’s circumstances are specific, the ideas the production brings forth are almost universal. The show’s themes about how one views him or herself and faces fear of the unknown are decidedly accessible, and infusing those themes with politically relevant circumstances creates a stunningly empathic piece that is somehow undeniably about race and justice, yet not about race at all.
Steve’s story isn’t a murder mystery, and the show doesn’t ask the audience to pass judgement. “Monster” asks the audience to view Steve as he views himself — as an artist. The show’s content, form and style demand that you view Steve Harmon with empathy and abundance, whether you think he’s a monster or not.
“Monster” runs through Feb. 26 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs eater, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $15-$20 and can be purchased by calling 312- 335-1650 or at steppenwolf.org.