One of the most disruptive and dissatisfying events the parents of school kids can face is the closure of their local school. Various justifications are offered by decision makers. The district is financially overextended, and the closures will reduce expenses. Or, the value of the property in the marketplace exceeds the cost of updating the aging physical plant. Or, the most damning – the school is chronically underperforming. Of course, this pretext argues that the bricks and mortar are somehow responsible for student achievement, a theory easily disproven.
So even if the fault lies with administrators and teachers, along with the students, parents will still consider these educators among the rare people in their community who care about the development of their children, so their displacement is the loss of a lifeline. Oh, and it goes without saying that the disproportionate percentage of closures occur in poor communities whose predominant residents are people of color.
In Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy, a high school in a depressed area of Chicago finds it will be closed after the following school year. The cavalcade of events is seen from the perspective of the teachers, who, along with the students, are the most effected by the elimination. The playwright looks at the attitudes, actions, and conflicts of a small clutch of teachers, including the teachers’ representative, as well as an assistant principal. The several teachers, along with a deceased colleague (you’ll have to attend the play to understand this reference), represent a cross-section by gender and ethnicity of minority groups, as would be expected at an inner-city school. The assistant principal is white and young.
The overall arc of the story is interesting and salient in an era when citizens expect high quality public services but chafe at paying higher taxes. As the approved demolition approaches, we see the evolution of thinking and activity on a single day in each season of the calendar along with the normal day-to-day routine and issues. With the action centered on the faculty break room, teachers clash and align and carry out their normal socialization as they reveal their expectations and cope with their impotence in effecting the outcome. Many of the political issues among educators that are covered are standard fare. But a critical clash is notable as teachers align with the assistant principal, but their representative opposes them. These aspects of the story are presented realistically and elicit empathy. The issues are grounded, and the cast is effective in their depictions.
However, for many viewers, appreciation of the play may hinge on one story element or one production element that diverges from the core thrust. On the story side, a bright, concerned but confrontational and condescending student is being considered for suspension because of hijacking the school website. Eventually, he becomes the leader of the teachers’ efforts to overturn the closure decision. He not only leads them around by the noses but is deprecating in doing so. The likelihood of a student dominating teachers in such a manner is so hard to swallow that it undermines the believability of the plot.
The other controversial aspect of the play is the depiction of Ricky, the assistant principal. Adam Niemann is a highly respected actor, while director Josh Costello is Aurora’s artistic director, so his competence is also recognized. It is unclear who is responsible for the characterization of Ricky, but while the rest of the actors are in naturalistic mode, Niemann’s mode is farcical. In the context of a serious chronicle, the character seems so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that he could have become an AP before age 30. Also, Ricky has a secret lover among the teachers, and it is hard to accept that the other person could accept him as a match. Note that some viewers will find this depiction laudable, but at least be aware.
The remainder of the cast is comprised of outstanding actors offering worthy portrayals. Perhaps the most convincing is Michael J. Asberry as Arnold, the dour and purposeful teachers’ representative. The most entertaining is Gabriella Fanuele as the charming and vibrant ESL teacher Jania.
Exit Strategy written by Ike Holter is produced by Aurora Theatre Company and plays at their stage at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA through September 29, 2019.