Ijames’ “Youth” Brings Spiritual Tale to Philadelphia Audiences



Ryan Weicht Staff Writer

From the 5th to 17th of this February in Vasey Theater, performances of Villanova professor and playwright James Ijames’ newest work Youth took place. Directed by Ed Sobel, the cast undertook twelve performances of the play within the two weeks. Ijames is an award-winning and emerging artist in the theater scene. In the past, his works have premiered across Philadelphia and world stages, and his newest project drew excited audiences.

The story of Youth unfolds over the course of one 80-minute act. It is set in a youth group’s small gathering space in a church near Philadelphia. There, four teenagers and their mentor, Pastor Dave, meet to sing songs, talk about their lives, and bond through their spirituality. The play begins during a group gathering, just as a decisive moment occurs: Wyatt, a new member, steps into the church and changes the meeting dynamic forever.

At the beginning, audiences know little about Wyatt, let alone the rest of the group attendees. However, a series of group meetings interspersed with members’ conversations and monologues quickly changes that. Wyatt is a non-believer who has been forced to come to the group by his parents, and he wrestles resulting conflicts of belonging as well as his sexuality. Reggie is physically disabled from a prior car accident yet tries to maintain a positive outlook on faith. He constantly battles to keep his faith and hints at questions about his own sexuality. 

Maurice and Leila both are going through periods of bodily discovery but express that to their fellow group members and the Pastor in different ways. During this journey, the two voice their presumably unrequited crushes on group members. These struggles, desires, and histories reveal themselves as characters speak longingly and pleadingly to the audience, always thanking viewers for listening.

The plot is driven by the ups and downs of these smaller issues, as well as a much larger one involving Wyatt’s mysterious power. Early in the play, Maurice falls on his head and begins seizing on the ground. Pastor Dave and the group react in various ways, but nothing stops the trauma until Wyatt places his hand on Maurice’s chest. The group scatters in fear as Maurice rises unscathed. As the story progresses, Wyatt continues to perform further miraculous acts like turning water into wine and producing a rose from his mouth. The increasing frequency of these acts intertwines with, and in some cases overtakes the struggles of the rest of the group. 

All the while, Pastor Dave grows increasingly angrier as he tries to maintain control of the youth and reconcile such miracles with his traditional beliefs and ways of teaching. The play reaches its climax when Pastor Dave has a manic episode, ripping a wooden cross from the wall and imploring the children to carry it like Jesus. When the Pastor finally forces the cross into Wyatt’s hands, the boy drops it and hugs Dave. This seems to have a profound effect on the Pastor, who is released from his pain. The play closes with an intriguing joint scene: Pastor Dave apologizes to Leila, Maurice, and Jennifer, while in front of them, seemingly in a different area, Wyatt miraculously heals Reggie’s paralyzed legs and they pray together.

The play produced mixed feelings among Villanova students. On a positive note, much of the show was engaging. The cast displayed expressive acting and emotional ranges, especially during Wyatt’s miracles, which prompted audiences to want to know what happened next. Ijames had excellent diversity in his choice of scenes, mixing group interactions with discussions between just two characters and even monologues to the audience. His dialogue frequently employed lines that were very humorous but simultaneously impactful. The lighting of the play was excellent, and often was key to setting the tone and increasing the overall drama of scenes. Music was included at moments that were poignant and not overbearing, and the cast exhibited great talent when employing it. Costuming seemed accurate to the time and amplified the play’s authenticity. The play succeeded in grabbing viewers emotionally and visually and remaining compelling for the rest of its runtime.

Though the play engaged viewers, some of its elements were somewhat strange or disappointing. While the work certainly raised many points about and depicted many issues of youth, it could seem childish when enacting them. Dialogue implied that the characters were in their late teens, having already received driver’s licenses and being in the midst of asking each other to prom. While group interactions occasionally reflected the maturity one might expect, characters’ treatment and discussion of their physicality and sexuality seemed to be like that of much younger minds. Some dialogue, such as that during the pageant practice, failed in its attempt to approach that of current youth. The set effectively tapped into nostalgia but would have been more apt if portraying an elementary or middle school rather than a senior high. It may be that Ijames was attempting to raise a point about how young our minds can seem at times, but that remained unclear.

Certain aspects of Youth that originally made for gripping plot points ended up seeming rushed and unresolved. Wyatt and Reggie’s exploration of their sexualities introduced intriguing tension that raised exciting questions about what would occur, especially with the backdrop of the church. However, instead of providing further development, the play dropped such tension from the storyline entirely. No conclusions were made about homosexuality and religion, nor did the characters discuss it further. 

Other plot points, such as characters’ desire for each other, bodily exploration, and socioeconomic backgrounds, also seemed half-developed and, in some cases, very insignificant to the story. The haste with which all these issues entered and exited plot made the decision to include them slightly confusing. In retrospect, these moments, though they may have attempted to show the host of problems that youth may bring, felt out of place.

The choice to end Youth on an ambiguous note was unique but may have done more harm than good considering all of the play’s unresolved elements. Some audience members were confused about what the ultimate message of the play was. Others felt that the work, despite its intentions, promoted inflammatory ideas. While the show did raise questions about the meaning of youth, its array of loose ends resulted in a failure to be impactful to certain viewers.

Youth was a whirlwind of sometimes exciting, sometimes confusing, sometimes superb and sometimes frustrating elements. However, the play still offers an intriguing glimpse of the potentials of the cast, crew, directors and playwright. There are exciting things ahead for all involved in Youth. Viewers, whether they liked or disliked the show, should look forward to future works.