For a playwright who has received the highest praise from critics, Ike Holter is disarmingly modest. “I’m pretty dumb,” the 30-year-old Chicagoan says, struggling to explain how he writes his riveting dialogue. “I have no way of saying how it comes out.”
Dumb? Really? That’s just about the last thing you’d say after watching one of Holter’s plays. He first grabbed attention in 2012, when The Inconvenience collective performed Hit the Wall, Holter’s stirring story about the 1969 police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn, a milestone in the fight for gay rights. The Chicago Reader called it “a full-out triumph.” Then came Exit Strategy at Jackalope Theatre in 2014, an intimate portrait of Chicago teachers facing the imminent shutdown of their school. Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones compared it to one of “those famously seminal moments of Chicago theater”—such as an early Steppenwolf Theatre show, or one of David Mamet’s groundbreaking plays from the 1970s.
The man behind these powerful, enthralling dramas is a Minnesota native who regularly Rollerblades to his writing office at Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park, where he’s a member of the company’s playwrights ensemble. His tiny, cluttered cubbyhole is just down the hall from the space where Teatro Vista is presenting Holter’s new piece, The Wolf at the End of the Block (through March 5).
The play is a mystery and a thriller and Holter is reluctant to give much away except to say, “Something horrific happens to somebody, that somebody survives. And the next 48 hours, that somebody has to figure out what they can do to stop this from happening again.”
That somebody, a character named Abe, is played by Gabriel Ruiz, a Teatro Vista ensemble member who’s been Holter’s friend since they were students together at DePaul University a decade ago. In this new play, Ruiz says, “The idea is that there’s been a crime, and a family is trying to get to the bottom of it.” Racial profiling is one of the underlying themes. But as Ruiz observes, Holter isn’t out so spoon feed audiences a civics lesson. “One of the reasons I loved Exit Strategy so much was that the politics was happening above all of these people’s heads,” says Ruiz. “They were just trying to survive it. That’s very much a theme that pervades this play, too. You watch people trying to maneuver under what’s already been given to them—and survive the worst of it.”
Holter says political and sociological themes naturally emerge out of the characters and situations in his scripts. “Wolf at the End of the Block does deal with racial profiling,” he says. “When you have that, it kind of asks its own questions, you know what I mean? I don’t think plays are about murder or racial profiling. I think plays have that stuff in them.”
Three of the five characters in The Wolf at the End of the Block are Latino, which is in keeping with Teatro Vista’s mission. “We are a Latino theatre company, but we understand that our population exists within such a diverse community,” says Ruiz. “That’s something we explore in all of our work.”
Holter, who is African-American and gay, has written plays about characters of all races and many different backgrounds. Sender is about young white hipsters stumbling toward maturity. Night Runner, now running at DePaul University’s Merle Reskin Theatre, is a musical about an escaped slave girl in antebellum America who’s on a quest to find her brother.
As the wide range of Holter’s subject matter demonstrates, his work isn’t easily pigeonholed. But one common element in several Holter plays is the city of Chicago. The Wolf at the End of the Block takes place in the same fictional Chicago neighborhood where Exit Strategy, Sender and another Holter play, Prowess, are set. “The plays respond to each other and they crisscross,” Holter says. And Ruiz adds, “It’s a treat. His fans and those who have been following his plays will begin to see that the plays each have repercussions on each other.”
Holter believes Chicago is neglected as a setting for contemporary plays. That’s part of the motivation driving him to continue writing stories set in his adopted hometown. “I love the city,” he says. “It’s my favorite city. There are good and bad and highs and lows to every single city. But I think our highs are a lot higher than other places.”
Although several critics have described Holter’s work as poetic, he says he’s just trying to capture the way people speak. “I’ve never been able to write a good poem,” he says. “But people talk like crazy characters in real life. If you’re in a fight with someone, they will say, like, a Shakespeare monologue without realizing that they’re doing it. Everyone speaks differently. Everyone has their own flow.”
So, don’t believe it when Holter calls himself dumb. Listen instead to Reader critic Tony Adler, who predicted that Holter “has it in him to be a major deal in American theatre.” Or pay heed to the Chicago Tribune, which named Holter one of its “Chicagoans of the Year” in the arts for 2014. Or take it from his friend and colleague Ruiz, who declares, “Ike Holter’s superpower is language.”