by Cathy Hammer
The world premiere of Education began performances last Friday at 59E59 and its arrival couldn’t be more welcome or timely. The story is centered around two high school students, Mick and Bekka, who use their art to express strong views. When Mick’s art project is banned by the high school principal, the pair team up to ensure the work is seen, a daring move with some unintended consequences. Though set in Ohio, the characters would be right at home shoulder to shoulder with the students of Parkside.
The conversation grabs attention from the moment the lights come up. A high school principal, Mr. Kirks, has had to call Mick, a senior student, to his office. Mick was caught with lighter fluid on school grounds. For an art project he was planning to use the prohibited substance to burn a small flag to represent the denial of rights to all people who should be protected by virtue of being American citizens. In the course of their heated discussion, it becomes clear that Kirks wants to support Mick. Torn between his heart and the system that employs him, he plants the idea that while Mick clearly broke the rules, his project is actually rather timid. He bans Mick from entering the upcoming art contest, but suggests that an effigy would have made a bigger and more dramatic statement. Once Mick leaves, it is Kirks who burns the flag.
Mick vents his frustration to his girlfriend Bekka. She, too, is in hot water with Kirks for having written expletive-ladened lyrics for a rap/poetry slam. Since she wasn’t planning to perform this work at school, she was let off with only a warning. She decides to enter the art contest and submit Mick’s revised work — complete with an effigy of Jesus made of dollar bills. It’s a move she is eager to make as both his lover and admirer. The ruse is supported by Mick’s uncle and guardian, Gordon, who appreciates Mick’s vision and passion. Only later do Bekka’s strict deeply religious parents find out, which results in Bekka being beaten by her father.
Both Mick and Kirks are bi-racial, a detail that is both fascinating and blissfully unimportant. Making his Off-Broadway debut as Mick, Wesley T. Jones commands attention, speaking with bite and at a clip. Jane West is equally skilled at bringing budding rap poet Bekka to life. The character cycles through certainty and doubt the way most young people do. What doesn’t work is Mick and Bekka as a believable devoted couple. There is simply no chemistry between Jones and West, which is a stumbling block to complete success. The two are well supported by the actors playing the adults in their lives. Bruce Faulk as Principal Kirks manages to portray disciplinarian and supporter in equal measure. Running interference is Bekka’s mother Sandy, played with appropriate uneasiness by Elizabeth Meadows Rouse. The best moments are saved for Matthew Boston in the role of Gordon. His phrasing is pitch-perfect and his every muscle movement supports a character who is a fiercely loving “Mother Lion.”
Written by Brian Dykstra. the script is close to flawless with flowing dialogue and wonderfully developed characters. Director Margarett Perry has been helping to develop the production for over 18 months and her familiarity with the material shows through with tight staging. The set by David L. Arsenault features a huge white cube at its center, likely a nod to “White Cube” a common type of commercial white-walled square art gallery that is lit from above. The set piece is also functional, dividing the stage into school and home areas at a creative angle and allowing for dramatic entrances and exits to both. Mr. Arsenault also designed the lighting which includes some critical and powerful effects. Amanda Aiken’s costumes provide high school casual for the teens and appropriate levels of office attire for the adults. Only the sporty look for Sandy’s first scene seemed too “discount warehouse” for this class-aware Mom.
Teenage audience members are sure to relate to the pressures and responsibilities heaped on Mick and Bekka. Adults will recognize the many ways art has been used as an effective weapon in the last few decades. Those who are inspired by this exciting play are invited to participate in the ongoing conversation on the lobby bulletin board and by following the #ArtIsActivism.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Education — 59E59 Street Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues in New York City. Runtime is approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.Single tickets are $25 – $35. Performances run through Sunday, April 8, 2018.Visit www.59e59.org for more information.