Caos on F
Saturday, July 12 at 1:45 p.m.
Sunday, July 13 at 8:15 p.m.
Thursday, July 17 at 9:45 p.m.
Saturday, July 19 at 5:45 p.m.
They say: I’m not Michelle Pfeiffer. This isn’t Dangerous Minds. Welcome to community college remedial English, where it’s my job for the next 12 weeks to teach you what you should’ve learned over the past 12 years.
Joshua’s Take: Here is a show that tells the truth. Writer and performer Ronna J. Levy, drawing on two decades of teaching experience, offers her audience honest, arresting stories of education, not the least of which is her own. I’ll admit that I went into This Gonna Be on the Test, Miss? expecting to relate to, but probably not wholly embrace, the piece: Stories about teaching tend to emphasize triumphs at the expense of hard-fought defeats. But Levy’s story delivers both. Anyone who has ever stood in front of a class—-whether it consisted of underprivileged students like the ones examined here with such warmth and clarity, or of their most affluent counterparts—-and tried to teach will sympathize deeply with this performance. And, as a bonus, they’ll be thoroughly entertained.
Levy and director Kel Haney deftly guide us from Levy’s early efforts as an actor to her unlikely detour into teaching; while the show covers a lot of ground, most of the action (such as it is) happens in the classroom. Levy’s specialty is remedial English, but her students often face obstacles far more difficult than grammar and usage The show’s best moments come from Levy’s students, whom she manages to conjure up in surprising detail. Levy only needs a few gestures, a tone of voice, and occasionally a writing sample projected on stage (these little glimpses of documentary reality are one of the production’s subtle strengths) to make these students come alive for us. We meet Julio, an out young gay man who writes about the AIDs crisis and coming out to his conservative Mexican father, and Dante, a gangster ex-con who, despite being accepted to Berkeley, chose to stay on the streets. There’s also Danny, who hears voices and struggles with his medication, and Candy (a clear audience favorite), who at some point in the 90s unknowingly scripted this show’s funniest line.
I was moved by just how deeply Levy gets involved in her early students’ lives, and apparently at their own behest. Her Los Angeles Community College students invite her along to plays, to quinceaneras and christenings, to every manner of public and private ritual. And all the while, as Levy brings her former students to life, she hangs the larger narrative on just the right amount of personal confession. Even in Levy’s preteaching stories—-first of being a child whose dreams of theater clash with her parents’ more practical expectations, then of seeking out a bohemian lifestyle as a young, struggling performer—-we can sense there is much more to her than a middle-class white person who wants to do good. There is genuine pain and loss in Levy’s story. Yet she wisely keeps the focus on her roles as fledgling teacher and conflicted actor, allowing her personal anguish to quietly raise the stakes of her professional struggles.
And those struggles are brilliantly rendered. Any teacher in the audience will feel a steady wave of recognitions here. Throughout the piece, Levy relates a plethora of excuses from late and unprepared students, a few of them quite understandable. She introduces us to courses with dread-inducing names like “Basic Sentence Writing and Paragraph Building.” And, in a hilarious but infuriating moment, Levy gets a glowing class observation report that ends nonetheless with terrible news. These stories from the trenches are often intercut with readings from preposterously bland commercials (Spic N’ Span! Nice N’ Easy!) for which Levy is at the same time auditioning. It’s this not-so-strangely symbiotic relationship between teaching and acting that is at the show’s core, and these central stories leave the deepest impression.
But because it’s a show about education, it’s also a show about all of us. Maybe it’s inevitable that the play’s least compelling moments are also some of its most important. Toward the end of her story, Levy brings more than a little punditry to her monologue, sacrificing dramatic weight for a cold look at America’s education bureaucracy. The picture is at once unsettling and unsurprising: dismal community college retention rates, teachers micromanaged by administrators who have little or no classroom experience, the paralyzing effects of poverty in every sense of the word. Refreshingly, no easy or platitudinous solutions are ever on offer. By the time Levy declares herself “post-cynical,” the meaning of the term seems obvious, and we can see just how precious that hard-won kernel of optimism really is.
See it if: You have ever been a teacher, a student, or someone otherwise connected to American public education (that’s almost all of you!).
Skip it if: You prefer the Hollywood fantasy of saintly, superheroic teachers.