Detention is a drag. For the students in “Exception to the Rule,” it’s also emblematic. Whatever landed them in the after-school slammer, these teenagers were already trapped by forces far beyond their control.
They barrel in one after another, their voices ricocheting around the Black Box Theater, where the Roundabout Underground production opened on Wednesday night. In a space no bigger than a classroom, the audience, sitting on three sides, is spitball distance from the bickering, the posturing and revelations of what lies beneath.
There’s Mikayla (Amandla Jahava), who balks at her reputation as a bad girl while relishing the attention; the goofball Tommy (Malik Childs), who claims he’s “not tryna holla” at Mikayla while very obviously taking his shot; Abdul (Mister Fitzgerald), who appears guarded and pensive, preferring to keep his head down; Dayrin (Toney Goins), who is quick-tempered but eager for a laugh; and the sweet but tart Dasani (Claudia Logan), whom Dayrin mockingly calls Aquafina (as in the other bottled water brand).
Then there’s Erika (MaYaa Boateng), otherwise known as “college-bound Erika,” whose late entrance comes as a shock to the bunch. Upwardly mobile and buttoned-up, she’s what Dayrin calls “the whitest person in a room full of Black people.” What could she have done wrong? And where is the teacher, anyway? They can’t go home until he signs them out.
As for the show’s conceit, the playwright, Dave Harris, borrows from both “Waiting for Godot” and John Hughes’s classic portrait of detained and misunderstood youth, “The Breakfast Club.” It’s doubtful that the students’ savior will ever come, and discovering what they’re in for, and what that says about their stations in life, propels the story forward. Throw in a few romantic sparks between opposites, and it’s all a bit too familiar.
But what appears at first like a mundane exercise in remedial discipline sours into something more sinister. The P.A. system starts to glitch, no one can tell the time, and bars slide over the window as the school goes into after-hours lockdown (sound is by Lee Kinney). Take away the desks, and the scuffed floors and cinder-block walls could just as easily be the setting of a prison (the set is by Reid Thompson and Kamil James). And the flicker of fluorescents and red glow of the hall suggest a kind of purgatory (lighting is by Cha See).
As the kids clash and open up to one another, surreal elements creep up, appearing to represent the systems and obstacles — poverty, redlining, over policing — that can entrap many Black people in rooms like this, and worse. And the students’ back stories illustrate how they try to maneuver against such repression: Dasani has stolen food because she’s hungry; Mikayla made her own too-short skirt out of necessity. (“You think I got money for all that extra fabric? I look sexy on a budget.”)
Under the direction of Miranda Haymon, the performances have an exaggerated quality that keeps the characters at a distance, despite the action being in your face. Each one has subtler, more grounded moments, but there’s a heightened sense to their personas that hints they’re stand-ins for broader ideas. Even as the even-keeled Erika, Boateng has an almost mechanical, doll-like carriage that evokes the concept of what it takes to escape social constraints rather than someone with one foot out the door.
As in his previous work “Tambo & Bones,” Harris toys with stereotypes about Blackness in order to turn them inside out, pointing to the history, circumstances and motivations behind ways of thinking and behavior. It’s an exercise performed for the benefit of audiences presumed to be in need of instruction, and for some it will no doubt be an eye-opening lesson.
But there’s a restlessness inherent to every schoolroom timeout, and to theatergoers being positioned as pupils. What happens once we can see people for who they are and then dig deeper into their contradictions? Understanding how lives are shaped by their limitations, as Harris details here with an ultimately pat sort of logic, is foundational to social justice. But in order to see that there’s more to people than what keeps them in margins, first we may have to set them free.
Exception to the Rule
Through June 26 at the Black Box Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, Manhattan; roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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