Here’s the question: The biggest problem facing troubled urban high schools is . . .
a. Poor standardized test scores.
OK, you can put down your pencils and take a deep breath. Sadly, the answer is, there is no single right answer, and even that catchall phrase, “all of the above,” is insufficient to capture everything that goes into the making of a failed school.
You will, however, see many of these factors present in schools such as the one depicted in Chad Beckim’s new play, And Miles To Go, now on view at the Wild Project. In a world where items “j,” “k,” and “l” in our pop quiz do not apply, the play should be considered a call to arms, in which items “a” through “i” become the focus of our undivided attention.
As the play opens, we find that we are seated in the auditorium of Urban Sanctuary High School. Adele Priam (Randy Danson), one of the school’s veteran teachers, with forty years under her belt, is speaking to us in response to the “Panel of Educational Policy,” which is considering closing the school due to poor performance. She starts out in a polite, professional, measured tone, arguing that “we are all to blame for this system” and that the proposed solution — closing the school and then reopening it with some minor changes under a new name — is tantamount to putting “a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”
Up to now, it is likely that many in the audience will feel impelled to cheer her words in a show of support. But it isn’t long before the composure slips, and Ms. Priam’s long-simmering anger comes to a boil. She lets fall some colorful language to describe the members of Panel, and ends by suggesting that “the only real solution is to blow up the entire system.”
Not surprisingly, this diatribe does not go down well with the powers-that-be, and the school’s beleaguered principal Leslie Winkfield-Porcher (Maria-Christina Oliveras) sets out to get rid of this unbridled troublemaker.
As the play unfolds, we meet some of Ms. Priam’s colleagues and a few of the students, and we gradually come to realize that a lack of caring is the least of the problems at Urban Sanctuary, and that even Ms. Priam is no longer the inspiring teacher she once was.
The cast does a fine job all around, straddling the line between satire and polemic. Randy Danson is especially good at presenting Ms. Priam as a complicated teacher who will either find a way to reignite the spark of idealism that led her to Urban Sanctuary in the first place, or recognize that it is time to pass the torch to a younger generation. Giving solid performances as students at the troubled school are Gabriel Millman, Devika Bhise, and, especially, Keona Welch as Keema, who has gotten a glimpse of possibility and cries out (if only someone will listen!) for guidance. The perfectly institutionalized-looking classroom set design is by Jason Simms.
The play is carefully constructed to have a continuous shift in tone, which, at the performance I saw, still needed some tinkering to keep the shifts from being too jarring. Too much “Welcome Back, Kotter” at the front end moves too abruptly into a most disturbing situation. A little easing up on the one and a smoother transition to the other would help to strengthen the production.
These are problems that can be worked out, under the guidance of director Hal Brooks. The one problem that can’t be worked out so easily is the one the play has set out to describe, perfectly captured in the final scene, which serves to remind us that with all of the difficulties that engulf the school, it is the students who are the victims here. Bonds of affection, born of a crisis, do not solve the educational challenges, and, as the title suggest, there are miles to go before we sleep.
And Miles To Go