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Prep fails the test; delivers little more than second-rate poetry

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There's no doubt that Tracey Scott Wilson can write well about important, thorny issues and create fully realized characters. Her last play to premiere in the Twin Cities, Buzzer, dropped us into a story of gentrification and resentment as a successful African-American man moved back to his old neighborhood.

But her new Prep is a mess. It's a hodgepodge of unfulfilled ideas, ill-advised storytelling, and tone-deaf writing. It takes on important issues — school and neighborhood unrest, black-white resentment, and police violence — yet leaves a trio of skilled actors flailing about on stage, isolated from each other and forced to recite second-rate poetry in place of engaging dialogue.

For the piece, commissioned by Pillsbury House Theatre, Wilson conducted extensive interviews with students, parents, and teachers in Minneapolis to examine racial tensions in schools. But Wilson has moved the action to a nameless city, where we follow two friends through a tumultuous day.

Chris is a strong student whose faith has earned him a nickname: "The Rev." He's also mourning the death of a close friend, who was gunned down while sitting on his porch. This has led to several retaliatory murders, which have put the neighborhood on edge.

This grief has led him to a very dark place. Chris has a master plan. He's going to head to a nearby white neighborhood, wait until he's confronted by a cop, and become a martyr as another black youth killed by the police.

Stealing your scheme from a shitty Kevin Spacey film (The Life of David Gale) is never a good idea, but it could work if the script was built on this absurdity. Instead, it gets treated with the gravity of Carton's sacrifice at the end of A Tale of Two Cities.

Chris' plot involves his friend Oliver filming the whole thing. Oliver, appalled at Chris' idea, refuses, and the two get into a fight. The confrontation mutates from a friend-to-friend conflict to a street-to-street one. This causes tension at school as their principal, Miss Michelle, tries to defuse the situation without knowing the context.

The plot rambles on after that. Part of the problem is that Wilson tells the story through the memories of each character, leading to little interaction between the actors.

It also doesn't help that — in a play about how violence among black youths is often swept under the rug — the deaths of two of Chris' classmates are mentioned and then quickly forgotten.

There are moments of reality that bring out the world in which Chris and Oliver live. Ryan Colbert, who has done some tremendous work in the last few months, is best as Oliver.

Colbert's attitude — at turns laid back, tense, and heartbroken — at least gives the show some emotional core. At one point, Oliver heads to school, knowing that he has been targeted by another crew. The tension is present in every part of his body.

Colbert is joined by Kory LaQuess Pullam as Chris and Jodi Kellogg as Miss Michelle, who also carve out more coherence than the script provides. But Prep needs to go back to the drawing board.