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Tree House Lounge
Remaining performances (tickets available here):
Thursday, July 23 at 9:45 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 6:30 p.m.
They say: A true-life story about a drama teacher struggling to engage her inner city students with everything from gangsta improvs to a rap version of Annie. Soon she learns the obstacle is not her students but a troubled NYC school system.
Andrew’s take: Karen Sklaire wanted to make a difference, so she became a drama teacher. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the person she wanted to make a difference for was herself. Maybe it’s the spurious way she connects being in New York on 9/11 to finding her passion for teaching; or the shock she describes feeling upon entering the South Bronx to find rampant poverty, crime, and difficult kids; or the emphasis she puts on her own constant physical unease, performing every “teaching” scene as a stammering ball of terror. But look at how many times she says she watched Freedom Writers, the 2007 inner-city-teacher movie starring Hilary Swank! Shouldn’t that be enough?
Maybe that’s unfair. Ripple of Hope, Sklaire’s one-woman show about her teaching years, is good-hearted, with several amusing anecdotes about what it means to bring drama into the lives of 17-year-old Crips members and little kids obsessed with Michael Jackson. She gives a strong performance, and the Bronx accent she slips into multiple times to portray her students never feels hammy or mean-spirited. Director Padriac Lillis keeps the action lively, with fun video footage of some of Sklaire’s lessons and a PowerPoint joke comparing her relationship with her principal to that of an abusive couple (I’m sure that would kill with a crowd of educators). But if, in 2015, you’re going to recount your experiences being a public school teacher in a low-income neighborhood—well, you have to bring your A game, because we already know everything that happened to you.
By this token, the show is at its best when it goes into detail about the many institutionalized roadblocks in Sklaire’s way: the byzantine union rules that place her in an infamous “rubber room” due to budget cuts; one school’s attempts to push out her drama class in favor of more test prep. These are parts of the educator experience that feel like they were waiting to be told. The tricky step is how to portray these instances as indicative of the typical challenges that teachers face, rather than as Sklaire badmouthing former employers for personal grievances. She doesn’t always pull it off: A scene where she recalls being punished for swearing at one of her high school students carries a whiff of they’re-out-to-get-me, and a moment of triumph with those same kids involves them telling her how she should have dealt with her own conflict.
But where Ripple of Hope does excel is in making clear that teachers like Sklaire rarely get their breakthrough Hilary Swank moments. Their victories come in small doses, student by student. If she could have exhibited a bit more awareness of her situation, or even a bit more cynicism when it came to her show’s own title (an adaptation of a Robert F. Kennedy quote), Ripple of Hope could have been a much-needed tonic to our favorite back-patting education narratives. As is, Sklaire doesn’t teach us enough.
See it if: You are a teacher, or you feel guilty for messing with your own teachers.
Skip it if: You suspect you already know every beat of Sklaire’s story, because you probably do.
Handout photo courtesy of Karen Sklaire