Everyday in newspapers we read about problems in high schools for the underprivileged (African-Americans) and schools for the affluent (white). What has to be done to improve schools for the underprivileged and improve them even more for the rich. The poor kids do not let lavish funding, few special programs, poorly paid teachers and are in run down neighborhoods. What can be done to help them? What about the rich kids from affluent neighborhoods? How can those students get into Princeton, Yale, Harvard other prestigious schools? Their high schools get enormous funding, offer all the special programs you could dream of and have the highest paid teachers. Can we help them? Should we help them?
Why do we live in a nation that does not offer the same education in high school for everybody?
An answer to that question comes in the world premiere of the very thought provoking and at times brilliant ABCD by May Treuhaft – Ali at the St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the Berkshires, a popular vacation destination for New Jersey residents. St. Germain is one of the Barrington Stage theaters there.
So what is the answer for the underprivileged kids and their teachers?
Oh, right, we say, given the circumstances. How else can hose kids get ahead in America? Let’s all do what we can to level the playing field between the rich and poor. Social justice…
Treuhaft-Ali’s story does not end there, however. The playwright’s point is that while some people can see why underprivileged students cheat to get into top colleges, and their schools approve of that, so do the rich kids. In ABCD, they not only cheat but concoct a massive cheating scandal that in the end involved 140 students (hey, remember that big scandal last year when all those wealthy kids and their parents invented stories of their athletic prowess to get them admitted to top colleges and on scholarships, too?)
The playwright’s point is pretty harsh. What she says is that many people believe everybody cheats to get ahead in America. If we all chat, cheating then, is not bad. Well, if it enables your underserved teenager to live the American Dream, is cheating so bad? In the play’s program there are newspaper and magazine articles chronicling cheating in the schools for the affluent and the underserved, even one about a cheating scheme that DID involve 140 students. It is just as universal today as the time period of the play, the 1980s. It happens in college and in high school. We’ll probably read soon of a massive cheating scandal in kindergarten (got to get into a good first grade, right?)
ABCD, which really made me think about life in America and the American Dream, hides cheating inside the lives of both students and professors. A much honored math teacher is all right with it and sees it as a way to help a friend of his in his, Antonio. We have to do it, he tells his girlfriend. How else can these kids get into college and from there into good jobs. The world is stacked against them and this seems to be the only path to success. Others at his school agree and take art in grade changing schemes, inflated letters of recommendation and other practices.
On the other side, a mostly white public high school, we have a pair of young go-getters organizing the 140 student cheating scheme. One is a Muslim trying to become “an American” and the other is an Asian girl. Their scheme gets bigger and bigger as their moral standards get smaller and smaller.
In ABCD, director Daniel J. Bryant does a stellar job of merging the emotional needs of the students with their climb to success, while taking the low road to do it. He gets fine performances from Melvin Aston as underprivileged school principal Ellis, who seems to look the way on cheating in an effort to win a city prize for student improvement, Davon St. Clair as the misguided math teacher, Justin Ahdoot as Bilal, Jurii Henley Cohn as Bilal’s confused dad, Toree Alexandre as the math teacher’s girlfriend. Other fine performances are by Chavez Ravine, Pearl Shin and Maribel Martinez.
One thing I loved was the set. It is rows of traditional high school student lockers that are constantly turned around to provide additional sets on the other sides. The lockers, the kids, the teachers, are also a good reminder of high school. For some it was the best time of their lives and for others four years of sheer dread.
There are small problems with this otherwise fine play, Antonio is never shown. The romances never work out right. Enough is not done with the discrimination Asian students face. More could be done with generational differences between the teachers in the play.
The one thing the playwright missed, something important, is that when you cheat you don’t merely cheat the school you are trying to get into, or others trying to get into them – you cheat yourself. People will say to you, and you will believe, that, hey, nobody will know.
One person does know – you. Cheating diminishes you and you will always remember that you did it.
So what eventually happens in ABCD? Does Bilal get Americanized? Does he get his girl? Does the cheat approving math teacher convince others that the practice is OK? Do the 140 students in the rich kid cheating scandal get into the top colleges or do they properly get their butts booted out of school? Does the math teacher’s girlfriend go along with him? Does the whole scheme, in both schools, actually work?
Do you get anywhere in America without cheating?
I don’t know. Let’s ask “Honest Abe” Lincoln. He did all right.
ABCD is at the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center (36 Linden Street) in Pittsfield through July 23. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.