The kids are not all right. With an epidemic of child and teen depression, rising rates of young adult suicides, social workers and counselors seeing an increase in teenage anxiety, one of five students report being bullied, an increase in executive function disorders, children and teenagers in the 21st century — at least here in the United States — are suffering.
In Caridad Svich’s Red Bike, the Cuban American playwright examines the crumbling American dream — that myth that hard work and bootstrapping lead to success — through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. Produced by the Washington, DC, organization Pan Underground, a block party with this site-specific show at the center endeavors to disrupt how both audiences and artists experience theater. Founder Pete Danelski aims to offer productions in nontraditional spaces to provide and surprise audiences with choices on how they consume and participate in performing arts.
Red Bike served as the centerpiece of an outdoor festival cum block party Saturday, May 21, 2022, on the campus of the decommissioned original Walter Reed Hospital site located on 16th Street NW. The event with food tents and artisan tents was situated in a cul de sac in the shadow — but alas, not the shade on the 90-degree day — of the original army hospital building, where JFK was brought after his assassination. The blacktop and the aging edifice proved the perfect venue for the action theater of Red Bike.
Svich’s play features three speakers all in the guise of a lone 11-year-old Child. Under the thoughtful direction of Pete Danelski, these three distinctive voices — recorded and amplified — become the internal dialogue inside our protagonist’s head. So while it feels like Danelski’s version is a solo show, the voice actors each offer distinct perspectives to the ongoing, sometimes fraught, conversation this child has with himself. And what a prescient, articulate, likable, and heartbreaking character Svich has created. Pan Underground’s Child is played by 19-year-old recent high school grad Brinden Banks. Lanky and athletic, with a tumble of ponytailed locs sprouting atop a close-cropped undercut, Banks has no spoken lines, but his emotional arc is fully evident in facial expressions and body language creating an indelible and complex portrait of the Child.
In fits and starts, Banks maneuvers the circle on the bike, sometimes parking and sprinting, flipping the bike upside down to play with the pedals, and then pausing to sit slumped on a curb, when his rush of thoughts overwhelms him. Clad in a soon sweat-stained Dunbar High School T-shirt and shorts, this young man, in his professional debut, displays astounding skill in conveying the hope, wonder, fear, and disappointment of a child on the verge of adolescence, on the verge of knowing too much too soon. Banks is an actor to keep an eye on; his onstage determination undoubtedly mirrors his own. It shouldn’t be long before we see him testing his wings in another dramatic role.
As we meet this budding character, the Child skips into the cul de sac. We hear his excitement about this wondrous red bike — coveted it in the store window, a precious purchase by the parents. Then, there it is, leaning against a pillar alongside the decaying building’s doorway, in all its shiny glory. As those who were once young and fortunate to have biked to neighborhood parts unknown until the street lights came on know, a bike provides a child with a sense of freedom, power, and possibility — all essential for growing bodies and minds.
And Svich’s triptych of monologues becomes an internal conversation as the Child first meanders, then speeds around the courtyard, pedaling effortlessly then hanging on for dear life, like a Tour de France cyclist — one of his goals. Red Bike, though, is more than simply a ride around the neighborhood. This Child has some heavy worries — about the five jobs his father works, though he only pretends to do two. About his parents’ lessons on how to be a good citizen. About encroaching gentrification — though he doesn’t use that big word. About the factory where his dad goes to box up and send out unnecessary goods to a nation of overly conspicuous consumers, while his own family struggles to make ends meet. About the belching pollutants that poison the skyline and the incessant drones — what are they for? — that hang in the air.
When he reaches the town business district, he sees all the goods his family can’t afford. Then there’s the man who owns everything — an enemy in his child’s mind — stuffing himself with quiche, likely the fanciest food this kid can imagine. Soon the chase is on; this bystander grows to monstrous proportions; the tension rises both in the voiced narrative and on the bike. What had been a pleasant pedal up a hill to view the landscape becomes a dangerous downhill, out-of-control ride. We imagine a kid careering crazily into a path of doom, boom, and crash. Anxiety rises. The scent of disaster hangs in the sticky hot air.
It becomes clear that this child lives and survives in a dystopian society. If it weren’t so foreboding, some of the descriptions of the oligarchical structure of this hometown sound like the darkly comic town where Bart Simpson lives — but far more foreboding than ironic. And as the child — voiced by Alina Collins Maldonado, Ahmad Kamal, and Bianca Lipford — continues on his excursion in spurts and starts, this nameless place feels both very close to home and very frightening. Imagine it through an 11-year-old’s eyes.
But the Child also dreams of being a star, a superhero, a rider in the Tour de France. He’s a kid with adult worries. The red bike is his escape, even if just for an afternoon.
But this boy — overwhelmed by adult worries about his family not having enough food on the table, and the talk of his dying town, with not enough work or opportunities to support its residents — is still a boy on his bike. As he pedals furiously, gulping in air, sweat dripping down his brow, that beautiful red bike represents the Child’s means to escape his problems and adult concerns. But ultimately where can he go? What can he do? Plaintively, he wonders, “What happens when you don’t know where you’re going?” This kid, we hope, will be alright, but the odds, alas are against him.
Running Time: About 50 minutes.
Sources for first paragraph
child and teen depression: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression (figure 2)
young adult suicides:
teenage anxiety: https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/teen-anxiety-statistics/
executive function disorders: https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/61806
Pan Underground’s popular ‘Red Bike’ block party returns May 21 (news story)