Set in a small city in the Midwest, the play begins in the office of the high school principal Mr. Kirks (played by Bruce Faulk). Mick (Wesley T. Jones) has been sent to his office because for his art project he suspended an American flag over a Bunsen burner as a protest against censorship of art in high school. After Mick lists all the ways the flag has been misused to protest free speech, Mr. Kirks tells him that this is too easy a protest and costs him very little. Mr. Kirks, himself a liberal who sees himself when young in Mick, still has to act as an administrator in order to run his school. As a punishment Mick is not allowed to enter anything in the juried school art show.
However, Mr. Kirks did not count on Mick’s girlfriend Bekka (Jane West), a 16-year-old white junior, equally articulate and equally alienated, submitting Mick’s next project – an effigy of Jesus made entirely of dollar bills called “The Almighty Dollar” to protest religious hypocrisy. This is videoed and goes viral on the internet ratcheting up the controversy which now becomes national. In the meantime, Bekka has gotten into trouble with a poem she has written for a poetry slam (not on school property) attempting to mock the sexually explicit poems of her horny classmates but in which she copiously uses four-letter words that set off the grown-ups. Mr. Kirks gets wind of this as she has brought a copy to school.
Aside from Mr. Kirks, Bekka’s evangelical parents (her father is a deacon) are incensed and forbid her to see Mick who they think is a bad influence. On the other hand, Mick’s liberal-minded Uncle Gordon (Matthew Boston), a college professor who is his legal guardian as both of his parents are dead, thinks that the brilliant Bekka who is the only one who understands Mick is just what he needs. Mr. Kirks and Mick eventually have to make decisions that may or may not compromise their ideals and lead to more trouble. Do we have free speech? Do school age students have free speech while in a school building? What is meaningful protest and what constitutes compromising one’s ideals? The play’s ending is as incendiary as its topic and is equally provocative.
The play moves between two red spaces, an office and a living room separated by a white cube used for entrances and exits, as well as on which to project video. The red walls of David L. Arsenault’s set are plastered with protest signs from the last 50 years. Having the two sets side by side allows for quick and easy transitions between the office scenes (first Mr. Kirks’ and then Gordon’s) and the home scenes where we see Mick with his uncle and Bekka with her mother Sandy.
While at times Education plays like a satire, the cast is uniformly in tune with its vision. Jones and West as Mick and Bekka may seem a bit too articulate for high school age, but one assumes that in a larger city they would be in a specialized setting for gifted students. Boston is amusing as the cynical uncle who always has a cogent and perfectly valid arguement to counter the conservatives. As Sandy, the Christian evangelical who relates everything to the Bible’s teachings, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse is almost a comic character except that such people do exist. Boston as Uncle Gordon is able to run rings around her in their one meeting in his office. Faulk has the most difficult role as a former protestor, now on the other side of the desk, who admires Mick but can’t allow him to disrupt his school. Playing devil’s advocate, he makes a fine impression citing the holes in the young people’s thinking while being on their side.
Amanda Aiken’s contemporary costumes immediately define these people as well-meaning citizens with varying points of view. Arsenault’s lighting always focuses attention in the right place in this multiscened play. The sound design by Kevin Heard includes many of the most famous protest songs of the past two generations. In Education, Bruce Dykstra has taken on huge issues which demonstrate the polarization of America today as well as the disaffection of today’s youth. While you may not agree with all his conclusions about the artist as truth seeker, the generation gap, religious hypocrisy, child abuse, the second amendment and small town provincialism, you will find yourself more stimulated by this play of ideas than by any drama in recent memory.
Education (though April 8, 2018)
59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59 Theaters, in Manhattan
Sanguine Theatre Company
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission