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Blackboard jungle, redeemed

Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy’ by PTC (first review)

4 minute read
Aimé Donna Kelly, Michael Cullen, Rey Lucas, Christina Nieves: A school whose students can't even spell its name? (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Aimé Donna Kelly, Michael Cullen, Rey Lucas, Christina Nieves: A school whose students can't even spell its name? (Photo: Mark Garvin.)

Some years ago, while researching a magazine article, I phoned the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, posing as a Philadelphia-based executive who was about to be transferred to Chicago. Where, I asked, could I find good schools for my children?

The agency representative launched into a rapturous description of Chicago’s suburban public schools, mentioning off the top of her head a dozen communities where we might happily settle.

“Well, we’re city people,” I told her. “What about schools in the city?”

Unfazed, the woman — a professional civic booster, after all — ticked off the names of Chicago’s best private schools: Francis Parker, Latin, and the University of Chicago Laboratory School.

“But my wife and I believe in public schools,” I said. “Can you suggest some good public schools in Chicago?"

Suddenly, the other end of the line went silent. “Well,” she said finally, “you’ll have to investigate that very carefully.”

Vouchers and charters

Here in a nutshell may be the root of America’s urban education problem, which is not so much the quality of the schools as our perception of them. From U.S. presidents to mayors to billionaires armed with free-enterprise theories but no educational credentials whatsoever, everyone seems to agree that America’s urban public education system is broken: a nightmare of bureaucratic red tape and stifling regulations, where entrenched administrators and burned-out teachers care more about surviving to retirement than about the hopeless kids entrusted to them.

Everyone also agrees that we’ve gotta do something about this alleged disaster, preferably something drastic. Not increase funding, which (according to this narrative) would pour money down a rat hole, but some really dramatic alternative (goes the theory) — like vouchers or charter schools — would give inner-city parents a choice (assuming such parents are qualified to evaluate schools) and thus force conventional public schools to compete for their “customers.”

Central to this free-enterprise solution is the concept of rewarding “good” schools and punishing “bad” ones. These days, in New York, Philadelphia, and especially Chicago, allegedly “failing” schools are being shut down altogether, presumably so the students can get a better education somewhere else. It’s a fine idea in theory. But how exactly do public officials define a “failing” school? Too often they look at student test scores, which tend to reflect not the quality of the teaching or the building but the impoverished backgrounds of the students who were stuck at the bottom of the pile to begin with.

Dogpatch and Anatevka

Which brings me to Exit Strategy and “Tmbldn High” — yes, that’s how it’s spelled in Ike Holter’s script — the literally tumbling-down school in Chicago’s inner city that has been targeted for closure. In this dilapidated blackboard jungle, devoid of textbooks and toilet paper, the teachers have largely given up (“I’m a Chicago teacher,” one observes; “Nothing fucking shocks me”), the wimpy principal sleepwalks through his day (“I just want to lay on the couch in a fetal position and eat a big sandwich until I throw up”), and the black and Latino students are so educationally deprived that apparently they can’t even spell the school’s name.

But once Tmbldn is officially labeled a failure, a funny thing happens. Like the residents of Dogpatch in Li’l Abner (a village singled out for a nuclear bomb test after being designated “America’s most unnecessary community”) or the banished Jewish residents of bigoted Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, the denizens of Tmbldn turn sentimental and then furious once they learn that the place is to be bulldozed. Maybe they never appreciated the school, they tell themselves. Maybe it’s better than the alternatives. Maybe it’s even worth fighting for.

In due course, the principal, Ricky, discovers his inner Schwarzenegger and rises to the occasion by enlisting the support of a rebellious student who is threatened with suspension. Teachers and students join forces to “fight the monster,” enlisting media support by marching en masse, not to the school district office or City Hall but to “Lincoln fucking Park,” an upper-middle-class white enclave where, they presume, the real power resides. (Full disclosure: I am a former resident of Lincoln fucking Park.)

In this process of “learning by doing,” they may not save the school, but they may learn more about institutions and power and their own capabilities than they ever would in a classroom. The despised Tmbldn High, it turns out, may indeed possess the educational resources that really matter: dedicated people, armed with a common purpose.

Forgotten actors

By dramatizing an issue that’s often discussed in the media but rarely humanized on stage, Holter’s play makes a valuable and original contribution. In this East Coast premiere, Philadelphia Theatre Company performs its customary job of providing a first-rate production for a new script that’s still a bit rough and frenetic around the edges.

Unfortunately, Holter chooses to view the issue of inner-city education almost entirely through the eyes of the faculty (only one of his seven characters is a student). On the stage as in the real world of public education, apparently, the students remain the forgotten actors.

For Mark Cofta's review, click here.

For Rhonda Davis's review, click here.

What, When, Where

Exit Strategy. By Ike Holter; Kip Fagan directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through February 28, 2016 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard), Philadelphia. 215-985-0420 or

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