Open Admissions: Theatrical Exploration of Education Policy
Also see Bob's review of When Something Wonderful Ends
A significant gap between theatrical quality and true insight can be observed in The Theatre Project's revival of the two-act, eleven-character version of Shirley Lauro's Open Admissions. This is an expanded version of the one-act, two-character play with the same title that was successfully presented as part of the 1981 Ensemble Studio Theatre's one act play marathon series and which returned there later that same year for an extended run. The full-length version had a scant two week Broadway run in 1984.
The title of the play refers to the grossly misguided policy (adapted in response to the demands and threats of demonstrating activists) of granting admission to the colleges of the New York City University system to any graduate of the City's high schools no matter how unable and unqualified that person might be. Schools which were the envy of the nation, and had been referred to as constituting "the Ivy League of the poor" became educationally unviable institutions which pushed unqualified students through the system by providing passing grades and diplomas to semi-literate, unable to perform students. Poor and working class students seeking a legitimate educational environment were forced to flee the City University system. Open admissions was initiated in 1970, and by 1976, the traditionally free schools had to impose tuition as the flood of unqualified students overwhelmed the City's financial capacity. Over time, this policy has been whittled down, but it remained in effect in some form for almost two decades. Although I have no independent knowledge of this, it would seem apparent that, as depicted in Lauro's play, many educators put into an educationally untenable position simply did their time by going through the motions until they would be eligible for retirement.
The two central characters of the play are Calvin Jefferson (Kenard Bunkley), a mentally unstable, illiterate, dangerously violent black student, and Ginny Carlsen (Barbara Guidi), an overwhelmed but well meaning young white instructor who had come to the Big Apple from Iowa and is unable to properly cope with the demands placed upon her by the college. The assaultive Calvin is making life a misery for his caring sister Salina Jones (Daaimah Talley) who, having overcome drug addiction, is struggling to provide for her young adolescent daughter Georgia (Treasure Moultrie). Meanwhile, Ginny has to deal with her totally irresponsible husband Peter (Gary Glor) and their adolescent daughter Cathy (Renee Francischetti). Unemployed since losing his job three years ago, Peter's principal activity is indulging his twin addictions of gambling and alcohol.
Also on hand are veteran professor Claire Block (Deborah Pires), a deceptive, gently evil educator who is only going through the motions of teaching and spends her office time selling summer shares in the Sag Harbor house which she owns, and, horror of horrors, opposes lower academic standards: and three ethnically diverse students, who (along with Calvin) are students in Ginny's Speech Communications 1 seminar: Kitty Shim (Rebecca Moore), Nick Rizzoli (Phil E. Eichinger) and Juan Rivera (Edward Corcino).
Despite all of his limitations, Lauro has given Calvin an innate, acute understanding of the situation in which he finds himself. Each member of the class is to explain to the class how s/he relates to a Shakespearean character and then to perform one of that character's short monologues. As Calvin is unable to understand or actually even properly read his monologue, he seeks a tutoring meeting with Ginny, but is unable to schedule one. When he makes a shambles of the assignment, Ginny greets his efforts with mincing, insincere words of encouragement ("decent try"), and awards him a grade of B. Calvin explodes on Ginny, "I can hardly even read ... I know no more than when I went in ... you ain't teaching, you're selling, you're shining it on." Calvin cogently criticizes Ginny for not allowing him to choose a character other than Othello because of his race. Calvin can't relate to a jealous middle-aged husband, but "the gravedigger shovels dirt ... I identify ... I have to work for the man." Of course, there would be any number of blacks in Ginny's seminar. Were they all assigned Othello?
After uncontrollably beating up on his niece and sister, the enraged Calvin returns to school at night and corners Ginny in her office. Calvin tells her that "Now, I'm Othello." He feels Othello's emotion of betrayal. Calvin begins to violently choke her. Ginny escapes his grasp, and Calvin cries out, "Somebody help me." For the first time, Ginny honestly responds to Calvin, "I can't help you. I can't teach you. You can't put a paragraph or sentence together, or read past the fifth grade." Drawing inspiration from a story that Calvin relates about a good, religious teacher who taught him reading, Ginny realizes that it is her duty to teach Calvin, she begins to do so, placing his hand on her throat so he can feel how she pronounces her words. The End.
All of this makes for crackling good theatre. This is an engrossing, vibrant, provocative play which deeply involves audiences. Although the issue of open admissions is her catalyst here, Lauro writes piercing, defining dialogue for recognizable, three dimensional characters.
Lauro sharply demonstrates the inherent folly of the open admissions, but never casts any blame on the politicians and extremists who foisted this harmful and duplicitous policy on all New Yorkers, including undereducated minority students who were and are entitled to real solutions to the failures of their public schools. Lauro places all responsibility on beleaguered educators and posits dunderheaded actions and solutions which reek of liberal guilt. How else to account for her positing that a college should lower its standards to accommodate students who can only read at the sixth grade level, or for the idea that it is the job of a college teacher to teach fifth grade reading to a student? Furthermore, how can Lauro continence the on-going presence of a student with a long term history of violence who, on the day during which the play occurs, dangerously and controllably assaults three females, coming within a hair's breath of breaking her every own neck? And how can Lauro endorse Ginny placing her life and that of other faculty and students in danger? Ginny's principal obligations are to report Calvin's violent behavior to the proper authorities and then return home safely to protect her young own daughter from her irresponsible husband.
Employing just scaffolding and furniture and props, director Mark Spina has directed a smooth and fluid production. The considerable impact of Shirley Lauro's play remains intact. Spina's only mistake is to set the play to the present when it is so strongly tied to a specific era in our history. Although some of the supporting roles are amateurishly performed, the crucial lead roles are well played. Especially impressive is Kenard Bunkley. His is a showy but difficult role, and Bunkley displays an great deal of heartfelt intensity and power. Barbara Guidi is most likeable and believable as the troubled Ginny. Guidi makes manifest Ginny's effort to remain calmly in control in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Gary Glor and Daaimah Talley lend solid support as do Rebecca Moore, Phil E. Eichinger and Edward Corcino as the trio of students.
Open Admissions continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./Sun. 3 p.m.) through April 28, 2007) at the Theatre Project on the campus of Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ. Box Office: 908-659-5189; online: www.TheTheaterProject.com.
Open Admissions by Shirley Lauro; directed by Mark Spina