Can the smothered idealism of the teachers be rekindled? Will the school be saved if students and faculty join together?
Exit Strategy by Ike Holter. Directed by David J. Miller. Staged by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through March 11.
By Bill Marx
We have now gotten to the point that American politics has become far more radical than our theater, despite the claims from the latter that it is busting boundaries right and left. Case in point: the recent approval of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead the U.S. Education Department. Among her pet causes: privatizing the U.S. education system. There’s nothing modest or conventional about that.
Theatrically speaking, the case in point is the Zeitgeist Stage Company’s well-acted production of Exit Strategy by the young Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter. On the one hand, the play comes along at the right time – its plot seems to anticipate DeVos’ demolition plan for American public education, given that it revolves around efforts to save a floundering high school in Chicago’s South Side that the city has slated for destruction. And the script is nothing if not determined to demolish clichés: in this case the heroic mechanics of the 1995 film Dangerous Minds. In the movie, ultra-determined teacher Michelle Pfeiffer single-handedly inspires a class filled with photogenic ne’er-do-wells from the lower depths. The students in the film are apathetic, tough, and hostile; the answer is to make them love learning via a caring, crusading teacher who is not afraid of takin’ on the system.
Holter sardonically alludes to Dangerous Minds a couple of times. Coolio’s catchy rap tune Gangsta’s Paradise, prominent on the film’s soundtrack, is brought in to supply a couple of knowing smirks. And the plot has been self-consciously flipped – here it is the teachers who are fed up, cynical to a fault; they weep few tears for the demise of the school, which has been dying a slow death. The good fight has been squeezed out of them: years of poor pay, inept administrators, losing protests over lack of funding, and problematic students have drained them dry. Into this miasma of defeatism comes an African-American student, Donnie, who hacks into the school’s website and dares to set up an Indiegogo campaign that is dedicated to saving the school. Once he manages (albeit not entirely convincingly) to inspire a once-jaded administrator with his spirit of hope, Exit Strategy is off and running. Can the smothered idealism of the teachers be rekindled? Will the school be saved if students and faculty join together?
Of course, upending stereotypes doesn’t necessarily break new ground. Most of the time it just upends the formulaic. Donnie is a bit too good to be true as the true believer and, while Holter’s dialogue is savvy, amusing, and urban spicy, we are still stuck in the same old sentimental exercise of herding cats – a gathering of oddballs are encouraged to drop their weary defenses and get together for the CAUSE. There’s Arnold, the aging ‘60s warrior who has given up; Sadie, who is desperate to be popular; Jania, hard bitten but vulnerable at her core; Pam, the foul-mouthed but heroic hellion; and the now obligatory gay romance. Nothing very surprising happens along the way, and Holter makes contrived use of one of my least favorite dramatic devices — the ghost ex-machima –- to make a stubborn character fly right.
The evening moves along with vim and vigor, thanks to David J. Miller’s snappy direction and the agile performances of the ZSC cast members, particularly Robert Bonotto as a grizzled teaching veteran who starts off crusty and, admirably, pretty much ends up that way; Matthew Fagerberg’s awkwardly idealistic administrator, Jalani Dottin-Coye’s impish rebel with a cause, and Victoria George’s take-no-guff pedagogue. The production could have made more of the script’s inter-generational clash — young hopefuls versus burnt-out pros — a debilitating political divide much in evidence during last November’s election. The final scene, in which the performers move up close and personal with the audience, packs considerable power, partly because Holter finally breaks out of the ‘plot’ and lets us look at the characters’ responses as they eye the school’s fate.
Still, it is time for serious playwrights to leave the schoolyard and dramatize what is happening in (and to) American education. Stop conjuring up classroom saviors and serving up disheartening visions of bulldozers; move our drama into the compromised and corrupt corridors of power, the real marketplace of ideas, where education is cut to fit the size of various pocketbooks and/or ideologies. Exit Strategy doesn’t take on any controversial wedge issues, such as charter schools, unions, or vouchers (we never even learn where the students are going to go once the high school closes), perhaps because they split and/or rile the suburban set and the upper class theater demographic. In the play, it is Chicago’s liberal (?) politicians who choke off funds to the school and then decree a profitable oblivion — there is nothing left but a shell sitting on a piece of valuable real estate. But we aren’t given any scenes with the elected-suits-in-charge: what do they have to say? What are they hiding? What PR line are they selling? Let’s have a script venture into DeVos’ office and hear her and her superrich cronies strategize on the exit of public education. There would be valuable lessons to learn.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.