Playwright hopes high school drama Yellowjackets creates a buzz

Playwright Itamar Moses wonders whether staging “Yellowjackets” at the Berkeley Rep isn’t a bit too literal. After all, the play is set at his alma mater, Berkeley High School, only a stone’s throw away.

Literal or not, Moses hopes his drama about ethnic, cultural and class tensions on campus thrills Bay Area audiences, as Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone directs the world premiere production, now under way.

Though the yellowjacket happens to be Berkeley High’s mascot, the title may have more to do with the play’s stinging plot. The dramatis personae of “Yellowjackets” include students, teachers and administrators, all trapped in a morass of political correctness.

When the student-run school newspaper publishes an article deemed insensitive to minority students, a firestorm of incrimination erupts, with the kids caught in the middle.

Moses was a student at Berkeley High in the early ’90s and worked on the newspaper staff. Like his play’s protagonist he, too, is the son of Israeli immigrants.

So is “Yellowjackets” straight-up autobiography?

“Some of the stuff I directly experienced,” Moses says. “It’s one of my most personal plays, in that it’s the first I’ve written that draws directly on my childhood and background.”

He adds that the student characters are amalgamations of kids he knew. Most of the teachers depicted in the play are fictional, though Moses admits some are a “direct winking homage” to real Berkeley High teachers.

Though he’s lived in New York for a decade, Moses still loves his East Bay hometown. He understands and even buys into the local progressive ethos, but he won’t concede life is paradise in the People’s Republic of Berkeley.

“Berkeley is amazing,” he says, “but people’s opinions here are ferocious. Any environment in which doubt or questioning is difficult is unhealthy. I remember feeling as a student there were certain things you didn’t question.”

The play explores some of those sacred cows, including the grouping of students into academic “tracks” (which to some critics is a kind of racial profiling) and having academic departments for black and Latino studies (Berkeley High was the first high school in the country to have a black studies department).

Moses is a true blue Berkeleyite. The son of Israeli immigrants who moved to California in the 1960s, he was born at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital, attended Tehiyah Day School (OK, that’s El Cerrito) and had his bar mitzvah at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom.

His interest in theater began in high school and carried over to his undergrad days at Yale. Then, as now, he had an ear for language, and so it was only natural that he directed his writing talents toward dialogue.

There was another, more practical reason for going into theater at Yale and, later, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“Theater is something you can do in college that is exactly the same as in the professional world,” Moses says. “Audition, rehearse, design, it’s the same in every meaningful way. It feels like you’re already doing it.”

He did it, all right. Moses went on to write several plays that enjoyed successful off-Broadway and national runs, including “Bach at Leipzig,” “Celebrity Row,” “The Four of Us” and “Outrage.”

“Yellowjackets” was a commission from Berkeley Rep, though Moses had long wanted to write a play about his high school experience. Two years ago, the theater did a reading of an early draft and last year staged a more developed workshop production on the U.C. Berkeley campus.

Now, with a cast of 10 young local actors, it’s homecoming night for “Yellowjackets.” Surprisingly, though all grew up in the Bay Area, none of the cast members went to Berkeley High.

And all of them graduated years after Moses — who is only 30.

“It’s funny,” he says. “Our cast feels 1994 is a period piece.”

“Yellowjackets” plays Tuesdays through Sundays now through Oct. 12, at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets: $16.50-$71. Information: (510) 647-2949 or online at www.berkeleyrep.org.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.