Generation Gap: A new production of an eta classic pits young against old

Checkmates, courtesy of ETA Theater

eta Creative Arts Foundation’s new play opens on a scene of newlywed bliss, which quickly turns into an argument before marital harmony is restored and the couple rushes off stage to have sex. It is a scene repeated countless times in “Checkmates,” written by acclaimed playwright Ron Milner and first performed at eta in January 1987. Like most of Milner’s previous works, “Checkmates” was a success and toured the country after its initial run at eta. It arrived on Broadway in the summer of 1988 for an extended run that featured a young Denzel Washington as Sylvester, a recently married black man rising through the ranks at a mostly white corporation. Syl (in this production, Keir Thirus) and his wife Laura (Caren Blackmore) serve as stand-ins for a younger generation of African-Americans who, the play implies, have had opportunity served to them on a silver platter. Syl and Laura’s foil is found downstairs in the form of Frank (Willie B. Goodson) and Mattie (Davalie Friend), an older couple who own the two-family house and rent out the upper floor.

The conflicts within and between the two couples result from generational differences. Speaking about these differences and relationships in “Checkmates,” Milner has said, “Now, it’s about I when it used to be about we and us.” Syl and Laura’s relationship often seems like a life-and-death struggle for dominance and independence. Downstairs, meanwhile, Frank and Mattie may squabble about the same issues, but it’s never serious; neither one seems more in control than the other, and their relationship is as balanced and stable as the modern couple’s isn’t. Flashbacks give us a glimpse of the beginning of this relationship in a small town and continue through their move to Detroit and Frank’s enrollment in the army. Through all the rough patches, Frank and Mattie remain constant in their marriage; meanwhile, thoroughly modern Syl and Laura are having trouble making it through their first month.

The serious subject matter and social criticism don’t get in the way of the play’s lively humor, which drew frequent laughs from the audience. Milner’s wit is on full display; while advising Laura against adultery, for example, Mattie tells her, “People with problems get to thinking they can subtract by adding or multiplying.” This wit extends into dialogue that feels as real as anything you’d hear on the street or in a bar; “His nose is browner than his ass,” Syl tells Laura about a sycophantic coworker.

Frank’s exaggerated concerns about (and anger at) the young folks also draw laughs, but the play’s message is ultimately behind him. Milner’s concern with modern values is understandable. At the time of the play’s premiere in the 1980s, America was in the middle of the so-called “Me Generation.” One of the strengths of “Checkmates” is that two decades later, despite the changing cultural landscape, the play doesn’t come off as a dated conflict between individualism and traditionalism. Every character is humanized and, with the possible exception of Syl, sympathetic even during the most intense fights. Whether or not you buy Frank’s view of the younger generation as self-absorbed and unappreciative, Syl and Laura’s story feels real and immediate, even twenty-one years after it was first told.

eta Creative Arts Foundation. 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Through June 8. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 3 and 7pm. $30. www.etacreativearts.org