The whole in Barrington Stage Company ABCD is crossed by a corridor lined with lockers. It both connects and separates two schools in the city that are miles and worlds apart.
May Treuhaft-Ali’s first world play (her first professional production, actually) is based on real events from the No Child Left Behind era of the early 2000s, when teachers and students from two American schools were caught cheating on compulsory exams. . While her storyline is shaped by these incidents, she is driven by the fact that they weren’t outlier instances.
Carnegie Middle School serves a low-income, largely black and Latino/a population. It lacks basic resources, such as an art teacher, a computer lab and a full-time school nurse. “The worst-performing school in the district,” according to its stressed principal, is at risk of closure if standardized test scores don’t improve dramatically.
Across town, Columbus Preparatory, an elite and highly competitive public high school (the model is Stuyvesant High in New York) with an almost exclusively white and Asian-American student body, has everything needed and most frills, too, including a swimming pool — and a black professor.
At Carnegie, every staff member we meet is people of color.
Davon Lawrence is the basketball coach as well as a math teacher. Mika Ramos (history) was Davon’s “first teacher”, tutoring him when they were both students at this school. Tamara Gardner (English), Davon’s fiancée, is young, passionate and already overwhelmed by the dysfunction of the school. “All the culturally relevant lessons and restorative justice techniques, everything I learned in college, I just can’t do that here. Not when I have to be a teacher and a social worker and a special education teacher and an ESL and a janitor, all at the same time.
Principal Ellis, fearing the school will close, has a plan to turn things around. He enlists Davon and Mika in a plan to keep the place afloat by secretly altering the test results.
At Columbus Prep, Joanna Krueger (physics) is the school’s only black teacher. We also meet two juniors of his class. Bilal is a kind, nerdy, and hard-working kid with Iraqi immigrant parents. The only Asian student who is Middle Eastern – and Muslim – he is either ignored by the other kids or mocked because he wears a long white thawb for Friday prayers, which gets him labeled as “the guy in a dress”.
Sunghee is Korean-American, popular and blithely cynical, taking Korean lessons after school because “my parents think it’ll be fine on college apps, and so I don’t look like a total Twinkie – yellow outside, white inside.”
Here, it is the students who feel the pressure to succeed. “Everyone here wants to go to Harvard,” Bilal says, and because of that, Sunghee assures him, everyone cheats. Except, apparently, Bilal. “O God how did you even Survived this school?” she exclaims. “Do you get bad grades or just don’t sleep?”
Reluctantly, if only to be noticed and accepted by his peers, Bilal agrees to secretly text the answers to the all-important physics exam to all of his classmates (it’s multiple-choice, ABCD ).
Davon and Mika, at Carnegie, are both experienced and dedicated teachers, very frustrated with the system but not jaded. We feel everything that in the touching portrayals of Brandon St. Clair and Maribel Martinez, he’s laid back (until the breaking of the law tenses him up and disturbs his heart, both physically and symbolically), she’s lively and composed (until things fall apart). Although we don’t see any of their students, we feel the connection, the devotion that makes the couple great teachers, through their performances.
Tamara de Torée Alexandre, the relative rookie teacher, moves with a nervous, wide-eyed energy, not yet dampened by disappointment. Principal Ellis’ disappointments, in Melvin Abston’s nuanced performance, have built a cynical shell and disposition of ends and means that allow him, in the name of survival, to deceive not only the school system but his own teachers.
In Columbus, Ms. Krueger de Chavez Ravine shows us a strict but compassionate teacher, principled but just as tired as her counterparts across the city. And Juri Henley-Cohn lends tired humanity to Bilal’s father, a doctor who fled Iraq and now runs a falafel shop, trying to make it in a foreign land while keeping traditional values and practices, laying down a rug of prayer to urge his stressed son to devotions.
Like Bilal, Justin Ahdoot has a hesitant air, often melancholy, a little stooped by anguish, with trapped rabbit eyes. In contrast, Pearl Shin’s Sunghee, if she lived in California, would be a Valley Girl – the driving muzzle, the tuft of hair, the jaded facade – for whom the crowd is the center of the universe.
Their scenes together are the most compelling — and the funniest — perhaps because the playwright is closer to them (she’s 26), and partly because the adult dialogue is more plot-driven, moving the piece’s 90 minutes propulsively but at times awkwardly towards its climax and crash.
Jits distribution is excellent in all areas (also the most beautiful in the summer). They are well served by the shrewd leadership of Daniel J. Bryant, who builds momentum without losing the human connections. In Baron E. Pugh’s smart set, the locker-lined walls pull away to reveal the interior settings of the classroom and home – the reality behind the brick and steel surfaces.
An insert in the program includes details of the actual events on which the play is based, ending with this telling question:
If performance pressure is driving people to failure in our nation’s most elite and underserved schools, then who is our education system for?
Emerging from the Covid crisis and recent racial calculations, theaters are mobilizing to present topical themes, including works by and about people of color. In fact, Barrington Stage has been leading the area’s theaters in this regard for quite some time. ABCDplayed until July 23, is a valuable addition to this record.
Playing until July 23 at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield.
Info and tickets here.
Photos by Daniel Rader
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