Urban Education Smackdown sounds like an extreme sport. Jim Fitzmorris, who wrote the piece and performs it at the Shadowbox Theatre, spent a year teaching in a New Orleans charter school, and this one-man show grew out of that experience.
Fitzmorris sometimes refers to his monologues as "rants." It's true he pulls no punches, but Smackdown smacks more of candor than fury. Fitzmorris takes a provocative tone from the jump by calling his fictional school "Plessy v. Ferguson" after the infamous 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld segregation, establishing the later-rejected notion of "separate but equal."
It's not entirely clear what Fitzmorris intends by using this name for the school. Maybe it's a reference to the damage suffered by generations who received inferior education under segregation. The school is predominantly African-American due to white flight from the city, private schools and other social factors.
The vignettes in Smackdown are detailed and deeply felt. Still, a line must be drawn between the author and the character he portrays. We'll call that character Teacher.
David Raphel's set is simple. There's a desk with a portable green board behind it. The credits for the show are scrawled in yellow chalk. The Teacher enters, wearing gray slacks, a tie and vest.
"What in the name of Zeus's bunghole would make anyone want to be a teacher in New Orleans?" he asks. That mixture of the esoteric and vernacular sets the tone for the show.
With sort of caustic script, often the interludes of tenderness are telegraphed and overplayed. We recognize them as deliberate heart-wringers. But Fitzmorris has included touching scenes that are poised, subtle and convince.
The Teacher has an ultimate nemesis: "that pluperfect motherf—ker Bobby Jindal, a biology major who nonetheless endorses creationism." The Teacher doesn't have to deal with his nemesis every day. He is engaged in trench warfare with the kids and their parents.
The Teacher often sympathizes with the students and would like to help. He tells remarkable stories about them and the crushing odds they face. One boy provides part of his family's income by tap dancing on Bourbon Street at night. The boy not only has no time for homework, he hardly gets any sleep. That's the kind of student body that haunts the halls of Plessy v. Ferguson. How do schools help such a kid, even under the best of circumstances? The Teacher has another obstacle. He can't get the class to shut up or follow the simplest instructions.
Getting strict with a disobedient child isn't easy. He is confronted by the a parent who proclaims she's sick of these "f—king teachers," "f—king principals" and "f—king schools" telling her daughter what she can and can't do.
The tales are often interrupted by a barrage of humorous asides, and we are glad to hear them. Mike Harkins directed this droll bit of sociology. Bravo. — DALT WONK