|Adam Niemann & Margo Hall|
It’s 6 p.m. in early August a couple of weeks before school is scheduled to open. A thirty-year-old, boyish-looking, white Vice-Principal is trying his best to make friendly small talk about the chocolate cake he left today in the teacher’s lounge to a stone-faced, African American veteran teacher of twenty-three years. She glaringly sits across the desk from him, pushing aside with sneers his nice-talk and demanding the bottom-line of why this meeting so she can get out of here. After all, even though their offices are next to each other, they have not spoken in the three years since Ricky Hubble arrived. Spitting with venom and sarcasm the name “Vice” when addressing the jerky-nervous, stumbly-voiced Hubble – Pam Morse knows why she is now the last teacher he is talking to: “You saved me for last because ... you fear me the most.”
With sudden officialdom, Ricky blurts, “The negotiations didn’t go as smoothly as we expected,” meaning the school where they both work will be closed at the end of the current school year. After scolding with plenty of four-letter words the “Vice” on his misuse of the word “negotiations” (since there had definitely been no two-way communications in this decision process), Pam remarks she is not surprised. After all, only forty percent of their seniors graduate; there are only twenty computers in their grossly under-funded school for 3000 students; and everywhere there are “leaks, holes ... even the paint is trying to get away from here.”
The meeting between Pam and Ricky only gets worse as Pam bites into the novice administrator, chews him up like a piece of raw meat, and spits out without blinking an eye insult after insult until both exhausted, the two smoke cigarettes in a momentary truce of silence. In those few, opening minutes of Aurora Theatre’s latest, grippingly relevant Bay Area premiere – Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy – Margo Hall proves once again why she is one of San Francisco Bay Area’s most revered actors as she so powerfully represents the pent-up frustration of teachers everywhere who have spent a lifetime in under-funded, largely ignored schools of mostly black and brown students that often end up on the School Board’s chopping block.
In this case, Exit Strategy is about a planned but fictional closing of a Chicago school – a city where fifty schools have in fact since 2013 been boarded up and often demolished. We are reminded in the evening’s program about a recent announcement of a planned closing/consolidation in the Bay Area of up to two dozen, likened schools here, making this Exit Strategy all the more important and timely.
After being beaten up by Pam, things do not get any easier for Vice-P Ricky as he walks a month later into the rather run-down, neglected teacher’s lounge (designed with stark realism by Kate Boyd and lit accordingly by Stephanie Johnson). There, four of the school’s teachers are gathered planning an opening day announcement of the school’s closing to the student body.
|Ed Gonzalez Moreno & Sam Jackson|
Before Ricky arrives, emotions, unspoken tensions as well as friendly and not-so-friendly jabs have rocketed back-and-forth among the four. Arnold (Michael J. Asberry) moves about as if his many years of teaching have left him dead-tired, and he clearly just wants to get this meeting over and move on. Much younger and bouncier Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno) is dying to report on his summer and wants to joke and jive before getting down to business; but he quickly backs away, given the growls and grunts of Arnold.
|Gabriella Fanuele & Ed Gonzalez Moreno|
Sadie (Sam Jackson) arrives cheery with a sack of juice, schools supplies, and snacks for her students along with plenty of rat poison – the last because exterminators were cut from last year’s budget. Her suggestion that it is time to take to the streets and march in protest to keep the school open is met with rolling eyes and explosive back-fire from Jania (Gabrielle Fanuele), who also shoots arrows of near-hate from her narrowed eyes at every remark Sadie makes. Both she and Arnold have marched those streets with students, teachers, and parents in the past to protest other schools closings; and as Arthur will later tell a student who wants to lead such a fight, “Just stop fighting ... You will lose ... You will always lose.”
And so when eager-to-please Ricky enters a lounge of teachers that by union rules is off-limits to administrators, he is met with a barrage of cynicism when he says with a too-big smile, “I am just here to help.” After all, as he is quickly told, he was AWOL and away locked in his office when they were on strike the previous school year for better conditions for themselves, their students, and the school.
Adam Niemann’s Ricky is sometimes almost too embarrassing to watch, so awkward, ill-timed, and almost clownish is the Vice-President in his attempts to cheerlead, offer help, and provide some leadership to the teachers – most of whom clearly just want him somewhere else out of sight. But mid-year when a senior named Donnie decides to hack into the school’s data system in order to send out a “Go-Fund-Me”-like request for needed funds for the school, Ricky’s moment to rise into the role of leader finally occurs.
Jania insists that Ricky suspend the wrong-doer, screaming with plenty of expletives, “Do your f-ing job.” Donnie himself – played with bold, raw, and commanding presence by Tre’Vonne Bell – does all he can to make the decision to expel him easy, going on an attacking tirade to a man he bluntly tells, “If your job is the school, I’d say you’re failing.” To Donnie, this idiot in front of him is not unlike all the other administrators before him in Donnie’s school years – years that he and all his classmates have been forced since Grade One to go up to the teacher’s desk in schools totally forgotten by funders in order to request a few sheets of toilet paper to go do their private business.
|Tre'Vonne Bell, Sam Jackson & Adam Niemann|
To Donnie’s surprise and the other teachers’ shock (and stunned dismay), Ricky decides not to suspend Donnie but to make him his “Creative Associate,” putting him in charge of the school’s website and solicitation of “our army of 3000 soldiers” to go fight City Hall as part of “Team Winning.” That decision changes everything. Ricky suddenly has the flinging arms and fire-and-brimstone of a TV evangelist. Teachers at first reluctantly and then with high-five enthusiasm band together in t-shirts to plan and participate a rallying march. And Donnie has a deeply felt cause and a forum that proves he is not a delinquent, but a confident and talented leader. And so it all seems.
Ike Holter’s biting, brilliant script along with Josh Costello’s no-holes-barred direction bores to the heart of the issue of lower-performing schools (at least by state test standards) whose populations of teachers and students are often in majority of numbers from races and ethnicities in the minority of the cities and states where they exist. Exit Strategy lays bare the effects of such a closing on communities and students but especially on the teachers themselves – over-worked, under-paid teachers whose own relationships at best are strained due to the pressures of their day-to-day lives where personal and professional have deeply fixed boundaries. Jania, for example, meets Sadie’s opening-day, chipper hello with an acerbic, leave-me-alone retort after not hearing from her all summer: “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t care.”
As the play and the school year progresses, we see the effects the threat and actual closing of a school have on teachers who are already living in individual islands inside their classrooms, who feel overall very much alone and up against a wall of no-support – even from fellow faculty and certainly from their administrators. The playwright’s stark revelation at the end of the play is startling and disturbing, where we see how even when at their best, teachers are sometimes – maybe often – left alone to figure how to continue to survive and to serve our nation’s most vulnerable population, our minority students.
Kudos to Aurora Theatre, to new Artistic Director and director of his play Josh Costello, and to this stellar cast and creative team for an important wake-up call in a Bay Area where tomorrow we may very likely read of yet another school consolidation or closing in one of our neighborhoods.
Rating: 5 E
Raw Strategy continues through September 29, 2019 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by calling 415-843-4822.
Photos by David Allen