Theater Review: “An Education in Prudence” — An Admirable History Lesson

An Education in Prudence offers fascinating glimpses into a repressed episode in American history.

An Education in Prudence, by Stefan Lanfer. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Set design and props, Abby Shenker. Lighting design, Evan Delguadio. Costume design, Rachael Linker. Sound design by Grant Furgiuele. Staged by the Open Theatre Project at St. John’s Church, Jamaica Plain, MA., through February 24.

A scene from the Open Theatre Project’s production of “An Education in Prudence.” Photo: Matt McKee Photography.

By David Greenham

Regardless of ideology, these days a person of white privilege days is forced to take a good, hard look at the social benefits they take for granted: such as, for example the right for our children to receive an education. Stefan Lanfer’s interesting if somewhat over-written play An Education in Prudence draws on the research of historian Beth Miller to dramatize the story of teacher Prudence Crandall and the Canterbury Female Boarding School, which opened in 1831 in Canterbury, Connecticut. After its initial successful year, Campbell began to admit free black students to her school, which prompted a local outcry. In response, the Connecticut legislature passed legislation that prevented out-of-state black students from receiving an education. The law, known simply as “The Black Law,” was cited in several future cases on race, including Dred Scott and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated public schools – at least on paper.

Playwright Lanfer, historian Miller, and the Open Theatre Project members (who are presenting the world premiere of this script) are to be congratulated for using theater to probe parts of the past that have been hidden away.

Thankfully, that does not mean that the occasion is one-note earnest. Open Theatre Project Production Manager Dustin Bell introduced the evening by suggesting that we “sit forward, engage, and enjoy the show.” The first half encourages you to do just that. We meet Julia, Christa Brown’s defiant 21st century student, who is unhappy with a tour of the Prudence Crandall House Museum. “I’m so done with Connecticut,” she declares, complaining  she’s hearing nothing but a lot of “white-washed” history from the tour guide. Her teacher, appropriately named Hope, reassures her that sometimes sugarcoated history is all that’s available. “You gotta study it until you find your own history in the cracks,” she advises. Julia isn’t convinced, but hangs around until white tour guide Elinor Denison (Mary O’Donnell) announces that the tour is an exercise in living history and that there are roles in the recreation for all six visitors.

Transported back to 1832, a temporal-jump assisted by Rachael Linker’s time-appropriate costumes, the cast dramatizes the school’s early days, led by Caitlin Gjerdrum’s determined and indignant Prudence Crandall, with frequent declarations supplied by Kevin Paquette’s stirring version of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

The result offers fascinating glimpses into a repressed episode in American history. Tenneh Sillah brings striking optimism and determination to the role of Sarah Harris, the student who started it all. In one of the play’s most effective scenes, Harris convinces Crandall to let her be the first black student at the school. We’re also treated to hearing what seems to be an account written by one of the school’s ‘real’ students: Shana Jackson skillfully shares the story of Eliza Hammond, who was chased, beaten, and harassed by some of Canterbury’s ‘finest’ young men when she tried to make her way to class. Regine Vital also supplies quiet confidence as Julia’s mother, Hope Williams, who holds Garrison to his words, demanding that he leave Boston and visit the school.

The school’s few antagonists (in the form of actors Mary O’Donnell and Jon Vellante) are sketchily drawn, to the point of being mostly invisible. The fact is that the Black Law didn’t shut down the school; it was the threat of violence from a local mob. This act of anarchy is dramatized via noises and shouts, along with a broken window.

Unfortunately, once An Education in Prudence arrives at its second act, the action begins to drift. Lanfer becomes more interested in detailing historical facts then in deepening his characters. A courtroom scene that tries to condense three trials into one comes off as confusing and unwieldy. Those who are interested in the school’s aftermath will have to do some research to figure out what actually happened.

Lanfer is clearly a skilled playwright, and historian Miller’s devotion to this little-known chapter of New England history is admirable. But, as drama, An Education in Prudence turns out to be more noble than it is compelling. The theatrical strategy of having contemporary black girls play-act their eighteenth century counterparts is promising, and Sarah Harris’ determination to become an educated young lady of New England, regardless of the color of her skin, resonates. But the awkward talkiness of  the script undercuts these strengths. For example, characters don’t spend a lot of time speaking to each other. They often just talk past each other, or make declarations while all the other figures around them stand and listen…or don’t.

The intimate vestry of lovely St. John’s Church makes for an appropriate, though problematic, setting for this historical drama. The set is simple; two performance levels and just a few chairs and tables. Evan Delgaudio’s lights don’t quite bath the playing space as they should, though they do work well with Grant Furgiuele’s aptly threatening sounds for the mob scene. Not nearly as effective: aurally distorted clips from speeches by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Shirley Chisholm, and Barack Obama that interrupt the action at key transition points.

Finally, what’s troubling about An Education in Prudence is the decision that, for the most part, white people — Prudence Crandall, William Lloyd Garrison, and history guide Eleanor Denison — are the sources of the narrative. There are too few glimpses into the minds and hearts of the young black women whose lives were at stake. At one point, the violent crowd threatens the students in the school. Brown’s Julia Williams vibrantly declares, “They should fear our ignorance.” In that statement lies the seeds of a powerful drama.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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