Sunday, December 31, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 13th review - After Class

Since I read the two plays in this volume (After Class by George F. Walker) a while back (while waiting for the furnace repair guy in fact), I probably should write up the review before the year ends.  This probably isn't the fastest I've gotten to 13 (for the Canadian Challenge), but it is right up there.  I was fortunate enough to see both of the plays in this book (Parents Night and The Bigger Issue) back in 2015 at Theatre Passe Muraille, but the scripts weren't published until 2017.  Reading the scripts brought back much of the craziness that went on on stage.  Not all George F. Walker plays involve outsized events and crazed interactions between characters (notably the Bobby and Tina plays, particularly the third one, are more restrained), but most of them do.  It is somewhat difficult to capture this on the page; also the charisma of the actors can sometimes make the horrible things they do or say (or say they will do) marginally more palatable. That said, it isn't often that new George Walker plays are staged outside of Toronto* and Vancouver, so reading them is probably the more realistic option for many.

Walker seems to tackle certain issues in cycles, and he seems to be working through two different sets of issues right now: the state of urban education and the plight of the mentally ill now that the State has deeply cut resources for mental health (not that he ever had great things to say about the previous system).  Parents Night and The Bigger Issue are both about urban education, essentially focusing on how teachers are being forced to deal with many issues affecting their students that are beyond their individual capability of dealing with (let alone "solving") and, truly, beyond the institutional capability of the school system as a whole.  Walker has promised that these two plays are the start of a larger cycle about urban education, but it isn't clear just how many plays this will ultimately entail (and indeed he probably doesn't know at the moment).

There are a few pressing issues that are not addressed at all: increasing violence against teachers (fortunately still extremely rare but not as unthinkable as it once was), students on drugs, students with language barriers and the increase of distractions in the classroom (cell phones but also laptops where they are allowed).  What Walker does tackle at some level is a general erosion of respect towards teachers (perhaps this should always be earned rather than granted as a matter of course, but it is very difficult to teach if the teacher is not considered an authority figure), the sometimes malign influence of parents on children's well-being and their interest/ability to learn, students with behavioural issues that cause major disruptions in the classroom, and the frustrating edicts** that come down from higher up that interfere with teachers' preferred modes of instruction and interaction with children.  Interestingly, Walker notes in the introduction that his wife is a teacher, so presumably he has synthesized and distilled years of her stories from the front, but then put the Walker spin on things.  In a sense, it is a bit surprising he hasn't tackle urban education sooner, perhaps largely because many of the lower-class characters he was writing about dropped out of school early on, with only Tina finding the strength to continue her education (as a teenager with a baby no less!).  It is also possible that Walker is somewhat expanding the range of characters he writes about, so he writes more scenes of middle and upper middle class characters interacting with lower class characters.  In turn, this may have made the school system more interesting as at some (but by no means all) urban schools there is more class mixing than one would see in other venues.  Indeed, in Parents Night one father asks the elementary teacher whether the other parent (marked in his mind as poor) lives in the school catchment area, since he doesn't feel she and her child belong at this school.

One interesting decision is that Walker decided to focus on the interactions between teachers and parents (and one principal) rather than showing a classroom scene or even putting any children on stage.  That's probably just as well, as we don't need too many more "To Sir with Love"-type scripts, and it also allows him much more range in the children that he is discussing (actual third graders and seventh graders in particular would be difficult to incorporate into these works).  At the same time, most of the issues he wants to dig into will be one step removed.  In other words, the teachers can talk about the problems they are seeing in the classroom, but the audience doesn't get to see them enacted (and thus can't really make their own assessment of what is really wrong and must rely on the teachers' accounts).  That said, Walker really goes to town and shows that these parents (and the home environment more broadly) are really messing with the students.  I'm not sure one really goes to a Walker play for the plot per se, as it is more about the reactions of slightly or very unhinged characters all bouncing off each other as things escalate.  Sometimes it feels like he is trying to keep as many plates spinning in the air as he can, and the question is how will it end: in a mad crash or in a softer landing.  In some ways, The Chance felt like an undeserved happy ending.  I kind of feel the same way about The Bigger Issue, but I didn't have as many problems with Parents Night.  I often wonder if, despite himself, Walker doesn't sometimes engage in magical thinking that someone in charge can just put things right if they want to, whereas people in positions of modest authority actually operate under significant constraints and it is much harder to make exceptions and bend the rules than outsiders expect.  Or perhaps he does realize this (even if his characters don't), but he just thinks it is a more satisfying (or personally amusing) way to end a play.  All that is to say if you read on, there will be SPOILERS related to the plots of these two plays.


Parents Night (and I think it really ought to be Parents' Night) opens with a young teacher dealing with a father who is quite demanding in terms of asking why his son isn't doing better and then quickly devolves into him spilling his guts to the teacher about his wife having left him.  As she loses sympathy over the course of the encounter, the teacher is more and more honest about his son needing extra attention, as well as needing to tone down the arrogant, hectoring tone he seems to have picked up from the father.  Then we meet a young woman who believes that the teacher is treating her daughter as if she is stupid.  The teacher tries to defend herself and points out that the girl is coming to school with a ton of make-up and is actually scaring the other students.  Her background story is definitely sadder (it is an aunt who is doing most of the make-up and she still has a drug-addicted partner in the picture).  The dynamics are fairly interesting: for a while the parents gang up on the teacher, she sometimes turns the tables on them (as they are both clearly inadequate parents and she is at the end of her rope due to a death in the family and is willing to say things that would/should get her fired), then the two parents have their own interactions.  For me this was marginally more believable of the two plays.  Also, there may be some hope for the children, who are still young enough to turn things around, that is if their parents ever wise up...

The Bigger Issue is interesting in the way it subverts expectations, but is ultimately an implausible play.  There is a young teacher (in fact even younger than the first teacher) who has injured a boy while trying to prevent him from attacking another student.  This is one of those nightmare scenarios that teachers dread, as it is in fact quite plausible.  Still, one of the number one rules is don't touch students, as so many bad things can come from breaking this rule.  Shortly, the mother turns up and starts demanding various things, including why the teacher hasn't been fired or suspended.  As the teacher struggles to regain her composure in the face of a very angry parent, she hands over a folder of threatening messages that the student has sent, and the tables suddenly turn, as it becomes quite clear that the student is pretty disturbed (and the parents have in fact refused to let him be diagnosed).  This would itself be a pretty interesting, if disturbing play, maybe something akin to Shanley's Doubt.  Walker goes in a completely different direction, however.  The husband shows up and before long the entire story unravels.  It turns out that the wife's professional demeanor is just a front to try to get respect from the authorities.  The couple is living with this boy (who isn't actually their child) in a squat without electricity, while the husband (who basically has no skills at all but wants to be an author!) is a security guard at a warehouse full of "hot" goods.  This is sort of ridiculous, but it gets even odder when the teacher and the principal agree to try to find a way to salvage the situation, which includes forging education records for the boy and bringing the couple to live and work in the school complex.  Talk about magical thinking!  It is interesting to see Walker try to write his way out of the corner he painted himself into, but this is definitely not one of his better plays.

It was still worth watching the plays, though I did think Parents Night was the better of the two (several but not all critics agreed with me).  It is true, however, that I have quite a bit of residual sympathy for urban teachers, having been one myself for two years, and that may predispose me to be more receptive to plays about how hard it is working in urban schools, though in fact I had very little interaction with my students' parents (which is a problem of a different sort).  In any event, I'll certainly try to see the rest of the plays in the cycle whenever they turn up.

* Even here in Toronto we're still waiting on The Crowd to turn up here after its premiere in Vancouver, along with quite a number of new plays Walker has written but not had staged.  It was definitely easier back in the day where everything he wrote was produced at Factory Theatre.

** One thing that seems ridiculous in Parents Night but is true in many school districts (and broadly true in Toronto, though I found my children's teachers willing to write comments) is that teachers are not allowed to write their own comments on report cards, but must choose from pre-approved messages from the Board, apparently mixing and matching to come up with something that is broadly appropriate for the child in question (so long as it is positive, of course!).

I have to admit this is an interesting fact of life at Earl Grey middle school where most of the elementary feeder schools are middle class (with mostly white or Asian children) and one feeder school sends mostly disadvantaged children of colour (and a large percentage are Muslim as well).  As one might imagine, there are tensions over any number of issues, including my serious annoyance that the principal decided to set up gender-segregated gym and swimming classes, which feels very un-Canadian to me.

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