As a teacher, at what can be considered an amazing charter school, I am a bit ignorant to the woes of my fellow public district schools. I get angry when a kid talks back, but for some teachers, administrators and students their problems are much bigger. Problems such as what happens when your inner-city schools get told its doors are closing at the end of the year? Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy is an uproarious, passionate play that deals with the issues of our current U.S education system, and how one Chicago public school deals with the tragic loss of something so dear to them.
The title Exit Strategy makes sense early on in the show and is the essential running theme through the entire night. Each character has been forced to design an “exit strategy” in the event that their beloved school actual does close its doors. The “exit strategies” range from the complete drastic to extremely content, and all of them bound to take the audience on a wild ride.
In the opening scene, we are met with characters I know all too well, the young administrator Rick (Ryan Sphan) and the veteran teacher Pam (Deirdre Madigan), that is equally loved and hated by staff and students alike. This moment essentially sets the tone of the show, and through Holter’s sharp, hilarious dialogue we can guess where he stands on the issue of the U.S government failing our inner-city public schools.
The rest of the play is told in the teachers lounge where we meet a handful of other teachers that range in age, gender and race, which was something that really excited me– to see all the diversity on the stage. The teachers are meeting over the summer to decide how they break the news to students that the school is closing after their current school year, in a speech lead by a cynical senior teacher named Arnold (Michael Cullen). After they’ve settled that order of business Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly), introduces her “exit strategy”, a plan to foster community support to keep the school open, starting with a public march. The other teachers, with the exception of Luce (Rey Lucas), shut her down almost immediately not wanting to give the false hope that their school will actually stay open past the year. Arnold and Jania (the hilarious Christina Nieves) both tell Sadie they have tried before — and failed.
Giving up on that dream, the teachers seem resigned to the fact they will have to start looking for jobs for the next year, until we meet the senior that plans to change everything, Donnie (the brilliant Brandon Pierce). Having hacked the school’s website (he turned it into a Kickstarter page to raise funds to keep the school open), he is now up for a possible expulsion. It is during this moment where one of the most powerful scenes is on display, Pierce delivers a passionate, angry monologue about his journey through the public schools system that includes one that was so poorly financed that the students had to go to his teachers for toilet paper. Ricky is so impressed he doesn’t suspend or expel him, instead, he names Donnie his “creative associate” in charge of social media for a newly formed group called Team Winning, which will gain public support for the school. With this new group, the hope is to cause enough of a stir in the media to keep their school up and running. Everyone–teachers, administrates and students are hopeful, joyous even. Even if only for a moment.
It’s one of those shows that isn’t nicely wrapped up with a bow at the end. The ending actually challenges you to push your thinking about this issue further, what do we do next? What can we do next, to prevent awful things like this from happening? Perhaps that was Holter’s intention because I left the performance with more fire in my belly. In part because of the strong, believable performances of the cast and the intelligent writing of Holter’s script, but especially because this piece was so close to the work I do, and I couldn’t imagine what I would do if my school just — wasn’t my school anymore.
Well, I have an idea of what I’d do, and it’s a line that really stuck with me from the show as I traveled back to Brooklyn that night. The young Donnie is crying out as he watches his school get destroyed in front of his very eyes, a place that was his home, Christina Nieves’ character says, “You fight, and you fight, but you don’t beg.
Exit Strategy a limited engagement only running until May 6, 2016, at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street New York, NY). The performance schedule is as follows; Tue-Fri 8, Sat 2&8, Sun 3, and added 2pm matinee Wednesday, May 4 and there are no performances available: April 12, 13, 20. The official run time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Tickets can be purchased here.