Most of Ike Holter’s play “Exit Strategy” is set in the teachers’ lounge of a southside Chicago school poised to be shut down. Tempers flare and emotions are raw as faculty and students challenge school administration.
But this is not a drama, said Mark Spina, artistic director of The Theater Project, which is presenting the play’s New Jersey premiere April 6. It’s a comedy, he said, rich with the sort of “foxhole humor” teachers use to deal with the challenges of their job.
“It really captures the camaraderie and the challenges of teaching,” Spina said. “It has that frantic pace and shows all the pressures the teachers have to meet the needs of the students, the needs of the administrators, all the tests.”
The 90-minute show features a diverse cast — They are white, black and Latino; a teenager and teachers; gay and straight. There’s a hapless administrator, two old guard teacher and a student who is sure things can change if only people outside the school knew what was going on. It addresses issues of school funding — one character talks about needing to ask teachers for toilet paper — and the emotional bond between professionals who are mission-driven to educate but continually find barriers placed before them.
Spina knows about that passion, and the impact a school closing can have on a community. He once taught at a Paterson alternative high school that he said was doing well but unexpectedly shut down.
“Schools are really loved by the people who attend them and the people who staff them,” he said. “It’s almost like your town blows up when your school is closed. You lose touch with people, friends, colleagues and students. You lose your sense of purpose.”
Holter, who is based in Chicago, was recently awarded the 2017 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for drama. His play “Hit the Wall,” about the 1969 Stonewall riots, ran off-Broadway in 2013.
Holter wrote this “Exit Strategy” after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 public schools in disproportionally minority and impoverished communities.
When the play debuted in the Windy City in 2014, “Chicago Tribune” critic Chris Jones called it “At once poetic, political, sad, funny, timely, complex and compassionate … you’ll find a blistering production of a crucial new Chicago play and an overall experience comparable to those famously seminal moments of Chicago theater…”
The Theater Project enjoys bringing works built around current social issues. Past productions include “Guardians,” which addressed the ethics of war with events similar to those that occurred in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and “Bury the Dead,” a 1936 anti-war play. As with other productions, the theater will host a discussion sessions after Friday shows.
“He’s writing social protest material,” Spina said of Holter. “Whether he succeeds or not, he’s honoring that voice.”
The Theater Project
Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood.
Tickets: $15-30, online at http://www.thetheaterproject.org. April 6-23.