Exit Strategy Takes On the Plight Of Public Education In Unexpected Ways

Miguel Cortes, Greg Dean, Melanie Burke and Gabriel Regojo in Exit Strategy at Rec Room Arts.
Miguel Cortes, Greg Dean, Melanie Burke and Gabriel Regojo in Exit Strategy at Rec Room Arts. Photo by Natasha Gorel
Picture a story about a poor school, in a dangerous neighborhood, populated by students of color, most of whom are failing. Their teachers are a mixed bag: some are jaded, a few well-intentioned, and several suffer from the type of selfishness conjured by years in the educational trenches. Now throw in the fact that the school is slated to shut down at the end of the year, leaving the staff unemployed and the students stranded. How would you imagine that plot would go?

I’ll give you a minute to flash through all the Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, Blackboard Jungle-type situations. The kind where heartfelt/tough-love teachers tame their rowdy but lurkingly intelligent students, overcome administrative obstacles and band together students and teachers to save the day, or the school, or the program, or the whatever it is they are trying to save. Cue violins.

Now take all that and throw it out the window – as none of that is Exit Strategy by Ike Holter, now playing with tragi-comic urgency and verve at Rec Room Arts under the insightful direction of Matt Hune.

True the setup is the same, Holter places us inside a Chicago high school, on the wrong side of town, on the wrong side of what the city can justify. This is a school where the land is worth more than the institution itself and where only 40% of the seniors graduate. This is also a school so starved for funds that teachers dole out three perforations of toilet paper at a time to students needing to use the facilities. A rat infested place where textbooks are falling apart from decades-old use. This is a school doomed to fail by fiscal neglect.

But instead of adorable plucky children and white knight teachers, Holter gives us a far more realistic and comically cynical view of the situation. Set inside the teacher’s lounge — designed to perfection by Stefan Azizi using blaring fluorescent ceiling bulbs to shine an unforgiving light on dated furniture and bargain kitchenware — we meet a group of hysterically dysfunctional and complicatedly intertwined teachers and their principal as they grapple with the planned shutdown. And what, if anything, they can and should do about it.

Screw this being about the kids per se. Inside that lounge we watch teachers struggle with self-preservation, frustration over having been through this before, staying true to union rules, fury at the administration and pissiness at each other for all manner of toe-stepping.

All of this is delivered via Holter’s dexterous dialogue that gives us quirk a minute laughs, matador bull-charging pace, and jazz-like verbal repetition that has characters repeating bon mots to each other scene by passing scene. It becomes like a fun puzzle-piece word game, who will be the next character to use the acronym ADR (all due respect) or the phrase, "and they’re off" or the descriptively derogatory "butt-chimney"? The cast, perfectly adroit in their sparring, is in on the gag and we could happily laugh at these folks going at each other for hours and forget there was a larger story to be told.

There’s Principal Ricky (played with perfect spineless nebbishness by Matthew Jamison), a man who the faculty rightly blames for not standing up for them. Arnold (Greg Dean, a treasure as always), the play it by the rules union rep who’s seen/done it all and is just too jaded and tired to fight anymore. Luce, the "OMG, Dude you won’t believe it," non-stop yammering young teacher who sounds more like a student than an educator, (Gabriel Regojo, wonderfully breaking away from the angst-ridden characters he’s been known for). Sadie, who presents like she’s all about the school and the kids, but has a short wick for other people’s efforts (listening to Melanie Burke deliver her, “I ain’t snacking on that” diatribe when pushed too far is a joy). Jania (Michelle Magallon, who we absolutely need to see on stage more often) fronts like she doesn’t care; she’s been through school closures before and she knows how it goes. But just listen to her describe her special needs kids: “They might be special but they aren’t fine, fine is for white kids.” She knows what she’s dealing with and she cares in spite of herself.

There’s also sailor-mouthed, 20-years-plus on the job, English teacher Pam (salty as hell Susan Koozin). She’s the person we see Ricky inform of the school closure at the outset of the play and her unexpected reaction sets in motion the rest of the narrative. It’s a testament to Holter that he can shock us so quickly right off the bat. It’s also impressive that two other surprises are waiting for us just down the road. Make no mistake; this is a Holter play, so surprises will include both issues of sexuality and race. One involves a relationship, the other a change of heart.

The heart change is courtesy of the one student Holter allows to penetrate the teachers' realm. Donnie (Miguel Cortes, making his professional debut with the confidence of a pro) is one of those 40 percent of students at this school who would most definitely graduate. He’s smart, motivated and knows that his agency means something even though those in power have let him down. Sure he's hacked into the school computer system to try and beg outsiders to save it, but can you fault the boy for trying when no one else is?

His efforts initially conjure resentment from the faculty but, eventually and by unexpected means, Donnie sparks revolution. It’s here that Holter’s narrative teeters on becoming that dreaded of all things, an issue play. And sure, Exit Strategy tickles the edges, but thankfully it never totally drowns in oxygen-sucking social preachiness.

Yes, there’s a fight to save the school and examination of the reasons why that may not happen, but Holter allows his saviors to be as faulted as the process and the powers themselves. Is a fight a good fight if the good isn’t altruistic? Is altruism a fallacy in the face of doing good, which naturally comes with personal stakes? Never does Holter, who witnessed the closure of no fewer than 49 Chicago low-income public school in 2013, suggest that closing a school is the right thing to do. Ultimately Exit Strategy is an indictment on our present have and have not educational divide. But he does at least give us pause as to who really is willing to do anything about it and why. He allows us to question what we would do in the face of this type of inevitability with just the barest glimmer of hope. And what we would do if our hurt and anguish needed shielding from yet another crushing professional disappointment.

These are all questions we should be asking ourselves in Houston as local and national education budgets are increasingly cut and charter schools overtake the public system. They’re surely questions Hune had in mind when he programmed Holter’s show for this season. Hune has a history with Holter; the pair were roommates and remain close friends and last year Rec Room mounted another of Holter’s play, Sender, to great critical acclaim. This year Holter was chosen again to complement Rec Room’s season that aims to highlight “characters reaching out for something better."

The thing is the phrase, “reaching out for something better,” perfectly describes what we’ve come to expect from the folks at Rec Room. We expect to see shows that entertain the hell out of us with intelligence and substance. Shows that resonate with us as modern audiences. Productions that wildly impress with new and established talent, impeccable design and sensitive direction. Shows that are often just better than what we see elsewhere.

It’s a high bar they’ve set for themselves but at least with their season opener, Exit Strategy, Rec Room has done it again and given us a reason to offer up three cheers for the little company that could.

Exit Strategy continues through October 13 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Rec Room, 100 Jackson. For information, call 713-344-1291 or visit $15 to $30.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman