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Fish

In Kia Corthron’s new play, public education as well as poverty is put on trial.

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

In Kia Corthron’s new play Fish, public education as well as poverty is put on trial. While the play has its heart in the right place and is a call for action, it attempts to cover too many topics in too serious a fashion. While the advance publicity for the play calls it “frank, funny and fearless” there are no laughs in it making it rather grim. Nevertheless, the cast directed by Adrienne D. Williams is first rate and several scenes are quite powerful.

Aside from its attempt to cover too much at one time (drug addiction, pregnancy, incarceration, high school dropouts, gun violence, lack of health care, underfunded ghetto schools), Fish does not tell us anything we don’t already know. It will come as no surprise that public schools teach to the test, truancy is a big problem and students fall asleep in class after working jobs at night to help pay the rent, or that charter schools are better funded than public schools. Nor does it have any answers other than that teachers should be more understanding of students’ home situations and help to do something about inadequate facilities and supplies – other than pay for missing supplies themselves.

Josiah Gaffney and Torée Alexandre in a scene from Kia Corthron’s “Fish” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova Photography)

However, the cast is commanding and the twists and turns of the plot are intriguing. Set in a high school in an unnamed urban area, Ms. Harris, the new English teacher, is embittered over budget cuts, teaching to the test, student truancy and the new charter school on the top floor that has preempted the library and has money for computer rooms. As a result she has become a strict disciplinarian, not in tuned to the student needs.

We also follow Tree (short for Latricia), a student in her class coping with problems beyond her age: bringing up her 11-year-old brother while their mother is in prison and trying to get through senior year without a computer or access to a library. She has also lost her best friend to the charter school in her own public school building. When her younger brother dies due to his school not having a nurse, she loses her government assistance and has to work to pay her rent. Ms. Harris, who has been her nemesis, stumbles on her true situation when they meet at the fast food restaurant that Tree now works.

Rachel Leslie and Morgan Siobhan Green in a scene from Kia Corthron’s “Fish” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova Photography)

Corthron has an excellent ear for the way young adults speak and the conversations between the female students have the ring of truth. However, she avoids any humor, jokes or ironic remarks which high school students of that age indulge in greatly. There could be much humor when students with the similar names Latricia, Lakkayyah, LaRonda and LaNeeyah meet up at school but nothing is made of it. They insult each other periodically but there is no joshing or kidding involved.

While the play is all call for change, it also has some elements that don’t ring true. Ms. Harris teaches her class to fill in the same letter for all the questions on the standardized tests if they don’t know the answers. However, education programs instruct teachers to tell students to begin by eliminating the choice they know is most far-fetched so that they have a better chance at the correct answer. In the last 20 years, New York classes have had to be in groups or circles but here the classroom is the old fashioned rows.

Margaret Odette, Torée Alexandre and Rachel Leslie in a scene from Kia Corthron’s “Fish” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova Photography)

Ms. Harris also does not seem to be knowledgeable that not all students have computers or are able to visit libraries on their limited hours. She is also unaware that some underfunded schools have cut nurses’ hours to two days a week. What is most surprising is that we are told she seven years before she taught in this very same school so that none of this should come as a surprise to her. On the other hand, while Tree has a huge vocabulary and was taught to read before she went to school, she has no intellectual curiosity or interest in education and is content with the minimum of effort. Usually, these two things go together rather than find them in conflict.

Torée Alexandre is very convincing as Tree as are all the other young performers playing students, but she gives a very grim performance with an element of wry humor in her situation. So too is Rachel Leslie as Ms. Harris a credible authority figure and very disillusioned with her career. However, her inability to crack a joke suggests she is very near a nervous breakdown over conditions in the classroom.  Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew’s LaRonda, Tree’s one friend, is a three dimensional character, even in the face of her adversities. Several of the actresses playing students are equally convincing as teachers: Morgan Siobhan Green as the principal and Margaret Odette as Ms. Harris’ lunch colleague.

Rachel Leslie (standing center) and cast of Kia Corthron’s “Fish” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova Photography)

Jason Simms’ unit set suitably works for the realistic classrooms as well as suggested rooms in both Tree and La Ronda’s homes. The pitch-perfect contemporary clothing for both students and teachers is by Mika Eubanks. Michael Keck’s sound design encompasses noises outside the classroom as well as home noises. Nic Vincent’s unobtrusive lighting does what is required.

The surprising title comes from the adage, “Give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” In teaching parlance, this is usually stated as “Give a student the answer and he will know one thing, but teach him critical thinking and he will be able to problem solve on his own for the rest of his life.” Kia Corthron’s Fish is a well-meaning play on subjects that get very little play on our stages. However, it tries to cover too much while at the same time dividing its focus between too many main characters.

Fish (through April 20, 2024)

Keen Company and Working Theater

Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-714-2442, ext. 45 or visit http://www.keencompany.org/fish

Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (984 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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