ABCD — glimpsing the wires of broken school systems

What are the ethics of cheating in school? Harder: what about the ethics of cheating for the sake of a school which is being threatened by closure?

Maybe if that cheating is purely self-interested, and if it constitutes the subversion of a fair system, we’ll have a relatively intuitive answer. But those are big ifs: in real life, our judgment is inevitably shaped by the conditions under which this cheating happened. May Treuhaft-Ali’s new play, ABCD, is a look at those conditions.

In the audience, these conditions are what we’re thinking about as Bilal and Sunghee, two juniors at the prestigious Columbus Prep, hatch a plan to distribute the answers to an upcoming physics exam via cell phone. For them, the stakes relate to college admissions and their immigrant families.

Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal and Pearl Shin as Sunghee in in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal and Pearl Shin as Sunghee in in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

The conditions are on our minds, as well the characters’ minds, as Principal Ellis recruits Mika and Devon – teachers at the underfunded Carnegie Middle – in his plan to forge the school’s performance on the upcoming Language Arts Proficiency Assessment, because the survival of the school depends on it.

Last Wednesday night, ABCD had its world-premiere at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage. The production is playwright, director, and dramaturg May Treuhaft-Ali’s first, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell.

Inspired by respective cheating scandals Parks Middle School in Atlanta and Stuyvesant High School in New York, ABCD is an incisive examination of the stark differences – and surprising convergences – between public schools in low-income neighborhoods with predominantly Black and Latinx student bodies (the play’s Carnegie Middle School), and highly-selective, resource-rich schools with predominantly White and Asian-American student bodies (Columbus Prep).

The humor brings you in, the serious conversation stays with you.

In my mind, one of ABCD’s greatest strengths is its ability to be as lively as it is instructive, as entertaining as it is socially engaged. There’s no need for a teachable lesson to be boring, and as the teachers at Carnegie Middle know painfully well, audiences often learn best when teachers are responsive to their needs.

There are no dry moments; you don’t expect a middle school dance backed by V.I.C.’s “Wobble” or a game of “Vodka Slap Make-Out” between high schoolers to come on during a play about serious systemic inequities in education, but they do. Brought to life by a brilliant cast, moments like these give the audience the entertainment they want.

Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

And rather than distract from the play’s serious messaging, they complement. For example, the “Wobble”/Vodka Slap Make-Out scene is concurrent with a serious conversation between Mika and Davon about whether Principal Ellis’s lies are justified. The humor brings you in, the serious conversation stays with you.

Despite its appreciable dose of humor, ABCD is not easy viewing – all of its characters are being counted on in ways that generate overwhelming pressure. Bilal came from Iraq to America when he was nine, knowing no English.

Now a junior at the prestigious ColPrep, he nevertheless feels isolated among his classmates, who mock the thawb he wears for Friday noon prayers at the local mosque. He views academic achievement as a way to make something out of his parents’ sacrifices, as well as the key to his acceptance by American society. For Bilal, it’s “five more points and you just might be American.”

On the Carnegie side, Davon is more than just a math teacher and basketball coach. At an underfunded school where many students lack access to stable homes, healthcare, and basic necessities like winter coats, Davon gets involved at a personal level.

Brandon St. Clair as Davon Lawrence laughs with Torée Alexandre as Tamara Gardner in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Brandon St. Clair as Davon Lawrence laughs with Torée Alexandre as Tamara Gardner in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

For example, when his student, Antonio, is having panic attacks at midnight, it’s Davon who calms him down over the phone. Davon keeps himself calm by thinking about his problems in logical, quantitative ways. But when quantitative expectations turn illogical, things get hard: Ellis tells him that the superintendent “would like our averages to rise by five points annually,” a figure that the teachers agree is impossible.

ABCD is on the right track, especially at its biggest moments, and with its treatment of the motif of “the numbers,” which ties the play together, from beginning to end.

Treuhaft-Ali’s play effectively draws out the inner emotional resonance of its characters’ experiences through means that exceed dramatic realism. For example, the guilt caused by cheating is symbolized with a pair of white gloves. At first, the gloves are merely instrumental toward the characters’ acts of cheating within the play: leave no fingerprints. But as the play proceeds, they morph from an instrumental prop into a visual symbol of inner torment into, surreally, the literal physical cause of torment.

In a climactic nightmare scene, the lights dim, a booming voice sounds, the gloves get stuck to a terrified and guilty Davon’s hands.

In a climactic nightmare scene, the lights dim, a booming voice sounds, the gloves get stuck to a terrified and guilty Davon’s hands. Guilt is also expressed through the means of dance – when Bilal (Justin Ahdoot) cheats, the lighting turns blue and his body twists and jerks as if possessed by something supernatural. Taken together, these creative means convey the psychologically torturous nature of guilt at a visceral level.

The gloves as progressive symbols, the lighting changes, and the cheating dance – they have an unsettling effect on the audience.

During the climax of the play – after both cheating jigs are up – everyone wears gloves, Bilal and Davon trade sardonic lines about “the numbers” (“the numbers are objective, the numbers tell it like it is,” etc.) as the rest of the cast chants “A B C D” for the multiple choice answers they have rigged. The scene is disorienting and unsettling in the best way possible, Brechtian and politically engaged.

Brandon St. Clair as Davon Lawrence talks with Melvin Abston as Ellis in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Brandon St. Clair as Davon Lawrence talks with Melvin Abston as Ellis in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

The scene also unsettles us at a deeper level because it exposes the obsession with microscopic levels of quantitative measurement – no matter the costs – that plagues the American educational system and arguably its broader economic system obsessed with optimization and the maximization of profits.

The ideas of Tony Kushner may be helpful in theorizing that unsettling feeling – what it is, and what it does to an audience.

For Kushner, who is deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht, theater helps audiences attain a “doubleness” in their understanding of social and political realities. He argued that when audiences become aware of theatrical scenes as artificial representations, they can be led to “see the wires” behind societal problems (In Conversation, p. 215).

It’s a hopeful theory: audiences can come to see those problems not as eternal, unchangeable entities, but as temporary political fixtures that can be altered and addressed.

According to a radio interview on Dublin City FM, Treuhaft-Ali herself is an avowed Kushnerian, seeing Tony Kushner as one of the “roots” of her “family tree of playwrights.”

In this light, devices of ABCD that go beyond realism – from its live theater elements (rapid set changes, for example, are executed right in front of the audience by the cast) to its unsettling depiction of guilt – combine with its subject matter to help the audience “see the wires” behind cheating crises in American schools, at a depth beyond what we typically encounter through the mass media.

If ABCD wants to help us “see the wires” behind real-life crises and is especially adept at revealing their psychological tolls on the actors involved, it could benefit from more specificity regarding the systemic nature of those crises, especially the institutional actors and economic incentives that motivate them. We see the wires, but what system arranged them, and what’s at stake for those resisting it?

Brandon St Clair appears in ABCD at Barrington Stage Company. Press photo courtesy of the theater
Photo by Daniel Rader

Brandon St Clair as Davon appears in ABCD at Barrington Stage Company. Press photo courtesy of the theater

As it stands, especially in the scenes at Carnegie Middle, cheating in ABCD comes across more strongly as an issue of individual moral failings rather than a systemically induced outcome. Its characterization of Principal Ellis, who makes the decision to cheat, is the clearest case.

ABCD presents an ambiguous depiction of Principal Ellis’s motivations for forging his school’s test scores. He seems caught between two opposing forces. On one hand, he often sounds as though he wants to bolster his own image. This is the version of Ellis who is embarrassed that he, unlike the other principals at the district conference, has to sit at the back of the stadium because he didn’t meet his performance targets.

On the other hand, there’s the version of Ellis who sees cheating primarily as a means toward the betterment of his students’ lives. The real-life equivalent of Ellis – as a well-meaning, imperfect person rather than a saint – is probably somewhere in between these two versions, with both forces alive and at work. But Ellis’s character in the play is less dialectical.

Ellis coerces teachers into cheating by asking if they are “team players”; he dismisses the teachers that don’t agree; he causes relationship trouble between Tamara and Davon; by the play’s end, he is indicted as a villain, receiving prison time for his role in the scandal, and his response is an unambiguous “I deserve it.” Ultimately, the audience is left with the impression that the condemnable, self-interested, image-occupied Ellis is the “real” Ellis.

Melvin Abston as Ellis cheers on his teachers in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Melvin Abston as Ellis cheers on his teachers in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

The real-life Ellis (Christopher Waller of Parks Middle School) – as documented in Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker article “Wrong Answer,” which May has said she has drawn on in her writing – does not condemn himself or his decision. He only pleaded guilty to lesser charges at his trial and spoke in defense of his decision to keep his school open, owing to the coercive systemic factors at play, as well as the high stakes of the situation for the teachers and the students he served.

Aviv’s article describes how “[Waller] and other teachers at Parks spent their own money to buy groceries, H.I.V. medications, furniture, and clothes for students and their mothers…,” as well as how teachers did laundry for students, or allowed students to sleep at their houses “when their mothers were absent or high.”

The real-life Waller’s plea statements also “provided a miniature history of the past twelve years in education policy, describing how No Child Left Behind, in conjunction with the district’s targets, created an atmosphere in which cheating came to seem like a reasonable option.”

Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal as in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage Company.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

As Treuhaft-Ali shows, the stakes of Carnegie closure are really high – hundreds of students and their families lose access to one of their strongest support systems and to basic necessities that a capitalist economy fails to provide to the poor – and Principal Ellis would certainly know that. But does the audience?

In my reckoning, ABCD does less to emotionally instill this side of the story, in which structural failures and flawed education policy upon actual students force drastic actions, both positive and negative, on the part of educators.

There are plenty of flashes of these systemically induced high stakes. Ellis coordinates a coat drive for the students, and Davon goes to great lengths to take on a fatherly role toward Antonio, whose biological father is serving in Iraq. Mika has to clean up vomit because the school is understaffed: a sick student could not see the school nurse, and the janitor’s not available. Tamara feels confined by having to teach to the test. All three teachers lament their students’ lack of access to basic necessities.

Maribel Martinez as Mika fist-bumps Brandon St Clair as fellow teacher Davon in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Maribel Martinez as Mika fist-bumps Brandon St Clair as fellow teacher Davon in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

These systemically induced factors all complicate the decision to cheat, but they are only ever attested to by the teachers. What about the students? ABCD depicts both students and teachers from Columbus Prep, as well as multiple teachers from Carnegie.

According to the cast, Treuhaft-Ali has included at least one Carnegie student in earlier versions, and I wonder what would happen if he did appear on stage. The student, Antonio, appears now only as an implied presence, and we rely on Davon to tell us about his life.

A full appearance by Antonio would have the welcome consequence of nuancing the play’s depiction of Ellis, and consequently the morals it projects about the situation.

Brandon St. Clair as Davon Lawrence talks with Justin Adhoot as Bilal and Torée Alexandre as Tamara Gardner in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.
Photo by Daniel Rader

Brandon St. Clair as Davon Lawrence talks with Justin Adhoot as Bilal and Torée Alexandre as Tamara Gardner in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage.

As long as Antonio’s existence remains hypothetical and at the level of testimony, so does the unselfish side of Principal Ellis’s decision. Early on, Principal Ellis tells Davon, somewhat vaguely, that “we can’t let the district slap our kids in the face.” But which kids, and how are they being slapped? We only know secondhand.

If Carnegie shut down, children would lose a whole support network: a set of teachers that know them and care for their success, a source of necessities not provided by the government, and so much more. But to us, the audience, these very real stakes are an unheard voice on Davon’s phone, rather than reified as a flesh-and-blood Antonio.

These very real stakes are an unheard voice on Davon’s phone, rather than reified as a flesh-and-blood Antonio.

On the other hand, Ellis constantly makes his decision seem questionably motivated. We hear him, in his own voice, asking the teachers if they’re “team players,” admitting that he “deserves” prison. This imbalance in concreteness between Ellis’s faults and the existence of his beneficiaries makes it harder for the audience to remember that even in the worst case, both sides of Ellis’s decision are real and at play.

In some scenes, then, what is made to appear “unnatural” in ABCD is the act of cheating on an individual scale, as well as the guilt and suffering that proceed from it, rather than a political and economic system in which teachers feel forced to do it.

But when the play is at its best – in scenes involving “the numbers, for example – it effectively unsettles our complicity within that system.

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