As The Teacher’s Lounge or One Child Left Behind begins, loudspeakers broadcast brief statements from George W. Bush and Barack Obama about the success – or lack thereof – of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires all public schools to administer state-wide tests on an annual basis. Bush suggests the legislation promotes accountability; Obama agrees, then criticizes Bush for failing to fund the bill sufficiently.
Both men, it turns out, miss the point.
As this superb production argues, the problems with failing schools in America transcend incompetence in Congress or the White House. The Teacher’s Lounge, which playwright Rebecca H. Jones could have written 20 years ago to equal effect, addresses not the quality of our politicians or the apposite quantity of federal funding for education, but the relationship between teachers, students and administrators in ethnically – and, increasingly, sexually – diverse classrooms.
Carli (Rachel Manteuffel), a white first-year teacher at a dysfunctional public school, faces constant frustration at her inability to control unruly students. Jann’l (Lolita-Marie), an African-American, favors the application of holy terror in her students to compel rigid obedience, much like the character of Sister Aloysius Beauvier in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Maria (Allycia Atania), a Hispanic, strives, with varying degrees of success, to achieve the happy medium of maintaining order in the classroom and simultaneously projecting sincere concern for her students’ welfare.
As we soon learn, their contrasting approaches reflect, in often unexpected ways, their diverse and troubled backgrounds, which twist and turn on stories of ethnic persecution and isolation, sexual identity and dissimulation, and poverty and crime. To its credit, and despite its somewhat misleading title, The Teacher’s Lounge manages to avoid hackneyed descents into facile moral preening, crude identity politics, or grand political statements. Rather, it creates three flawed, all-too-human characters who inspire neither our absolute sympathy nor our complete contempt, who symbolize the manifold problems – and their atavistic origins – in modern education.
Indeed, in this play, the political battles rage not in Washington, but in the individual politics of victimhood and its effects on succeeding generations. In this respect, Jann’l embodies the most disturbing example of victimhood run amok, leveling knee-jerk accusations of racism against her colleagues and advocating a form of self-imposed separate-but-equal education reminiscent of the days of Plessy v. Ferguson. Still, when Carli and Maria argue with her, they gradually reveal their own prejudices, casting doubt on the purity of their concerns for the students in their charge. Nobody, in this play, is wholly innocent.
In the end, The Teacher’s Lounge offers no pat solutions to the problem of failing public schools. At some level, however, it suggests that such schools depend less on government intervention than on a fundamental reassertion of individual responsibility and a refusal to lapse into lachrymose protestations of historical afflictions. Surely, that’s a starting point that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama can embrace.
The Teacher’s Lounge or One Child Left Behind
By Rebecca H. Jones
Directed by Ryan S. Taylor
Produced by the Washington Rogues
Reviewed by Tzvi Kahn