Consider this: Since Julia Cho’s Office Hour premiered in April 2016 – a play dealing head-on with the threat of gun violence in schools – 28 shootings have occurred in U.S. schools, resulting in at least 44 deaths and 80+ injuries. The event that the playwright says in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s program inspired her to write such a play -- the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University -- has been followed by at least 175 schools shootings and 128 more deaths (not including the 33 at VA Tech). Even since Berkeley’s co-producing Long Wharf Theatre opened this same show and cast on January 17 of this year, 8 more shootings, 22 more deaths, and 40 injuries have stunned and sickened communities from Winston-Salem to LA to Parkland, Florida. All this to say the obvious: Julia Cho’s hard-hitting, sometimes startling and shocking, and altogether moving and thought-provoking Office Hour unfortunately is extremely timely and a play needed for our times.
As a struggling writer, Gina has no skills -- or so she claims to be the lot of her and all of her fellow, famous-authors-to-be. She thus does what many of them do: teach. In her case, she is an English teacher at a local college and is beginning another semester with a student in her class whom other teachers have warned her, “Something’s wrong with him.”
Not only does this guy never talk in class even when directly addressed, she is told, but he also writes papers about detailed revenge scenarios, torture, and violent sex and has included sentiments like “the art of ass-raping is not hard to master.” That he also dresses in all-black with a hoodie, baseball cap, and sun glasses that hide his face does not help him win any friends among teachers or his fellow students – some of whom are so scared after hearing one of his papers read that they drop the class he is in. Oh, and he is also a minority – in this case, Asian.
|Kerry Warren, Jeremy Kahn & Jackie Chung|
Unlike her co-teachers Genevieve (Kerry Warren) and David (Jeremy Kahn), Gina (Jackie Chung) is determined to help this guy whom David in a wild-eyed, flinging-arms tirade declares “is a classic shooter ... it’s what everyone thinks.” Gina invites the student for a required, twenty-minute office visit after his first paper has been written -- a stack of loose papers the size of half a novel, containing rambling, anger-filled references to such topics as necrophilia and cannibalism.
When Dennis (Daniel Chung) arrives in his usual attire and a black backpack one afternoon (late, of course), only his tightly pooched lips can be seen as the hoodie and glasses shroud his countenance. Quite purposefully, he sits not facing his awaiting and clearly nervous teacher. Many attempts are made by Gina to attain simple information from him and engage him in some kind of conversation, with his only response being a slightly cocked smirk, an abrupt turn of the head in the other direction, or a ever-so noticeable rise of his otherwise slumped shoulders.
But Ms. Chung’s Gina is not to be deterred, and she begins to chatter almost non-stop about her own life and about ways she ascertains she and Dennis are actually alike. Their shared ethnicity, her admission of going through silent periods while growing up, and some similarities uncovered of their experiences with first-generation parents begin to bridge the gap between her and a Dennis who now slowly begins to divulge a bit of who he actually is as a person.
|Jackie Chung & Daniel Chung|
The resulting conversations and revelations, the emotional hot-buttons each inadvertently pushes on the other, and the contents of what is in the back-pack lead to a teacher-student office hour that neither probably expected to happen. Julia Cho takes them and us down hallways that have cluttered messes, surprise side-corridors, and no-exits. Along the way, Gina learns that some of her and her co-teacher’s worse fears might in fact be all too true – or are they?
Office Hour explores in a real-time setting the assumptions we in America so quickly can make about those different from us, those ‘others’ whom we do not understand. Ms. Cho takes our fears of threatening, murdering intruders into our schools, our movie theatres, our cars, and even our houses and lets us watch them play out in all their awful possibilities right in front of our increasingly tense and apprehensive selves. Things begin to happen that may be real or may be in Gina’s (and our) imaginations. But their effects are all too real on confirming too easily our expectations of who this hooded recluse actually is.
And the questions start to flow. What does being ever-diligent mean in 2018? How do we know when a threat is a threat or just a recluse/odd-ball? When and if should we recognize and help someone who feels completely marginalized, disempowered, and thus angry at his entire world; and can such a person be helped? What does a world where concealed carry is increasingly the law and a norm look and feel like? Who is the good guy, and who is the bad? These and so many questions are ones that pop to mind as the minutes pass during this office hour’s visit; and the answers are not easy ones to find and maybe to accept, if found.
The power of Julia Cho’s script and of this production so skillfully (and here’s that word again) and shockingly directed by Lisa Peterson is that we do leave the eighty-minute, tightly paced production with new insights, some hope, and an example of what courage and risk-taking look like – on both the parts of the teacher who is trying to care and the student who is seen as a threat. Both Daniel Chung as Dennis and Jackie Chung as Gina give powerful performances that are unsettling, heart-breaking, and up-lifting all at the same time. Mr. Chung in particular eventually gives full face and voice to a young man who has spent his life feeling apart from everyone around him. He educates us through his responses and revelations, his eruptive emotions, and his moments of being an immature boy not yet grown up and of then being an adult who is perhaps past the point of change.
Where the play becomes a bit unbelievable at times is in the self-revelations and almost therapy-like confessions that Ms. Cho writes for the character Gina. While Ms. Chung delivers with high energy and intensity these detail-filled gushes of Gina’s past and present issues and life occurrences, I for one find it difficult to believe that a university, adjunct professor would spill forth all these intimate things about herself in a first meeting with a student – much less to one who might be a possible threat to her or others’ lives. The methods Gina sometimes uses (like becoming Dennis’s mother and having him enact a conversation with her) are those that a skilled therapist might use, but I doubt any part-time teacher would do so.
That said, Lisa Peterson and this cast have ensured that Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Office Hour is gripping, emotionally captivating, and totally provocative. Given the news of the past few weeks of Parkland, of our President’s Tweets, of continued legislative non-action on gun control, and of promises/threats for laws allowing teachers to carry guns on campus – all these headlines and more make seeing a play like Office Hour an important beginning point for audience members’ self-reflection and self-assessment of attitudes, prejudices, and fears as well as commitment for further dialogue and action.
Rating: 4 E
Office Hour continues through March 25, 2018 on the Peet’s Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne