“Think about the colonizing role that wealthy white gay men have played in communities of color; they’re often the first group to gentrify poor and working-class neighborhoods. Harlem is a good example. Gays have moved in and driven up rents, as have renegade young white students, who want to be cool and hip. This is colonization, post-colonial-style. After all, the people who are “sent back” to recover the territory are always those who don’t mind associating with the colored people! And it’s a double bind, because some of these people could be allies. Some gay white men are proactive about racism, even while being entrepreneurial. But in the end, they take spaces, redo them, sell them for a certain amount of money, while the people who have been there are displaced. And in some cases, the people of color who are there are perceived as enemies by white newcomers.”
– bell hooks, Homegrown: engaged cultural criticism (2006)
Cowardice is a curious human trait. Although the human instincts of Fight and Flight are the two most well-known reactions to stressors, the least-known is actually the most common: Freeze. Not everyone has the training to be effective fighters, nor has everyone the familiarity with danger to knowingly fly from it. As such, the average person is far more apt to just stand there and do nothing, hoping that the danger will go away on its own.
Cowardice isn’t quite the same thing: cowardice is having the means to do something and knowing you can, but choosing not to because you don’t want to take responsibility for the outcome. A coward is someone who is trained and equipped to face this specific form of danger, but won’t. This results in innocent people being hurt as the coward turns away and says, “There was nothing I could do.”
Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy is a play about cowardice and the many forms it takes. Oh sure, it’s also a play about institutional racism, classism, gentrification, generation gaps, and the ever-shitty state of American public education. But it’s also about the cowardice that allows those problems to exacerbate; about those who would rather get out of the way when others lead or follow; about having an admirable goal within reach, but choosing to hinder it rather than support it.
This conflict is made clear from the play’s opening scene, in which Pam – a Black woman and longtime teacher of the predominantly Black/Latinx Chicago public school – has it out with Ricky, the White assistant principal. Ricky’s been having meetings with staff all week, but nothing has prepared him for Pam’s inability to give a fuck anymore. She rips him apart piece-by-piece, dissecting his closeted homosexuality, his White privilege, his poor sense of fashion – everything. And yet, the two sharing a smoke together suggests this to be the start of a friendship, for it’s the first time that they’ve actually spoken face-to-face.
Unfortunately, it’s to be their last time as well. It’s August and Ricky informs Pam that the city will close the school at the end of the coming year. Pam decides not to wait – as soon as she leaves Ricky’s office, a single gunshot is heard.
The shadow of her presence looms large over staff, particularly Arnold, a fellow veteran teacher who fought alongside her for change. The new faculty are a mix of young optimists pulled back to Earth by the realism of job security. It takes the firey determination of Donnie, a student and would-be delinquent who uses his skills for social justice, to light the spark in the staff once more. But it may be too little, too late.
Holter’s wisest choice is not falling into the trap of simply “Black people good, White people bad” clichés that plague works like this. Ricky (Adam Niemann) is, by all accounts, a coward upon first glance, but all he needs is the motivation to take action. His relationship with Donnie Tre’Vonne Bell, recently in Shotgun’s Kill Move Paradise – one of this year’s best shows) turns the traditional “teacher-inspires-inner-city-student” trope on its ear with Donnie lighting a fire in the belly of his instructor. Similarly (yet contrarily), Arnold is an intriguing representation of surrender. He’s been around the block more than once – easily able to Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno) the very “dap” the younger teacher thought would step the elder – but he’s tired of fighting. That would be enough, and his own decision to make, were it not for the fact that he seems intent on standing in the way of those who haven’t yet given up. He intends to be the immovable object to their unstoppable force, a prospect that makes Arnold as infuriating to watch as it is sad.
Under the guidance of Aurora’s new AD Josh Costello, the production at times reflects the text it’s staging. Just as Ricky is the odd man out in the school, so too do a few of Costello’s choices hit and miss. He was blessed with a fine collection of actors and his staging around Kate Boyd’s excellent set is perfect, but he occasionally dials up the volume at moments that don’t need it. The opening scene, for instance, features Pam played by Margo Hall, one of the single best actors working in the Bay Area. Yet, Costello forgoes her nuance by simply making the Pam-Ricky scene a shouting match. It was so off that when Pam shot herself on opening night, people in the audience were laughing.
Michael J. Asberry has similar trouble finding the right note for Arnold, with the late revelation that he was (in his mind) “friend-zoned” by Pam having little weight. Better served are the young faculty member, Jania (Gabrielle Fanuele), Sadie (the always-reliable Sam Jackson), and Luce (Ed Moreno, now performing with his given name). It’s as if Costello was able to balance them perfectly, but chose to crank the older actors to “11”. Mind you, this is a play about emotional characters saying and doing things intended to stir up the audience, but it works better with ebbs and flows.
It’s appropriate then that the play doesn’t end on a happy note. In a world where public schools and programs vanish by the hundreds, but the world’s first trillion-dollar company pays less in taxes than a retired senior, optimism can be in short supply. That’s usually when it’s needed most. Ultimately, Exit Strategy is about how losing one battle doesn’t mean the war is over. Aurora’s production is blessed with a cast that can hit all the operatic heights; they just don’t need to fly that high all the time.
Exit Strategy is scheduled to run until the 29th of September on the mainstage Alafi Auditorium of the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, CA.
The show runs nearly 2 hours with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.