On Jan. 28th, The Civilians’ New Workshop Reading for Duke Performances Examined the Charter-School Controversy

It is Tuesday, Jan. 18th. The staged reading of our new play is in 10 days. Ten. Days.

Tickets have been sold. Furniture is being arranged. Lights are being focused. Maybe we should start writing the show.

Seven days later, after completing 40 interviews with local teachers, parents, students, administrators, and lawmakers, including yours truly, it is time to transcribe and edit the dozens of hours of audio into something resembling a series of monologues. We have 36 hours until the curtain goes up.

The Civilians, a Brooklyn-based theater company led by artistic director Steve Cosson and managing director Jane Jung, creates new theater based on creative investigations into our world’s most vital questions. The troupe performed its touring production, The Undertaking, for Duke Performances last September. (Click here to read my review of The Undertaking: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/10/the-undertaking-on-sept-29-oct-1-at-duke-was-the-civilians-multimedia-exploration-of-death.)

That play was fully formed and featured a complex multimedia presentation, but the ink is still wet on this new piece. And the company does not hide that fact. The untitled work was presented last Saturday, Jan. 28th, as The Civilians Workshop Reading of a New Play by Ethan Lipton.

During the 10 days leading up to this reading, a team of eight completed hours of interviews all over North Carolina, in an attempt to gain multiple perspectives on the controversial charter-school movement. Interviewers edited transcripts and handed them off to playwright Ethan Lipton, who began building a car as it sped down a precipitous hill — January 28th, waiting with open jaws at the bottom.

The four skilled anthropologist-performers could never have performed all of these monologues, no matter how edited down, so a “lottery” was employed to randomly select that would be presented on Jan. 28th. The lottery (numbered balls falling from a rotating cage) was appropriate, since it mirrors the method by which a student is admitted to a chosen charter school. As parents take a risk in “school choice,” the audience takes a risk in theatrical choice.

If one is interested in education, investigative theater, or play development, this was an engrossing and intriguing event. The testimonials confirmed what some already believed about charter schools, enlightened the less informed and, perhaps, baffled the uninitiated.

The battle over “school choice” (i.e. vouchers) has sparked controversy for years — and for good reason. Some argue that a parent, dissatisfied with their child’s public education, can demand that the state pay for the child to attend the private school of the parents’ choosing.

This may not appear entirely problematic — until the question of constitutionality arises. When taxpayer dollars are given to a religious institution, which many private schools are, has a line been crossed? Many would say yes.

The land in-between private and public — charter schools — gained traction in North Carolina in 1996, when the General Assembly approved their existence. Many, especially those on the political left, assert that charter schools siphon funds away from traditional public schools. They dislike the notion of “experimental” schools that serve targeted populations, usually based on socioeconomic background or academic aptitude.

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s current pick for U.S. Secretary of Education, has passed through the Senate committee hearing process; but final confirmation hangs in the balance as several Senate Republicans refuse to back her. DeVos is a strong proponent of “school choice,” the typical educational platform of the political right. Her unwillingness to confirm that federal funds will remain intact for public schools disturbed many on both sides of the aisle.

Funding is the crux of the matter: which entity pays for what kind of education for which kids? The Civilians do not aim to answer this question decisively, but rather observe and report the experiences of those on the front line.

The frustrated parent, the baffled attorney, the loving teacher — all are here, and all are strongly opinionated. But The Civilians have presented a balanced mix.

The actors were most successful when they displayed strong characters, rather than submitting to recitation. Nedra McClyde was especially adept, using body language and dialect to great effect. Likewise, Bobby Moreno’s speakers were clearly defined; and he injected much-needed humor when he could find it. Ngozi Anyanwu began with an introductory statement from the author (delivered, in fact, as the author); and, alongside Nina Hellman, served as a de facto master of ceremonies.

This newly conceived play, like the N.C. charter-school movement itself, is still gestating. A postshow talkback garnered positive reactions from audience members, most of whom are on board with director Steve Cosson’s concept — such as it is — as well as Ethan Lipton’s emerging text.

Neither The Civilians nor the audience know quite what this play is or what it is going to be. We can be sure, however, that local perspectives on charter schools need to be heard in dramatic form — whatever that form may take.

THE CIVILIANS WORKSHOP READING OF A NEW PLAY BY ETHAN LIPTON (Duke Performances, Jan. 28 in R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus.)

SHOW: https://dukeperformances.duke.edu/calendar/civilians-%E2%80%A2-new-play-workshop-reading and  https://www.facebook.com/events/1688603654739033/.

PRESENTER: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/dukeperformances, and https://twitter.com/DukePerformance.

VENUE: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/venues/reynolds-industries-theater.


The Civilians (Brooklyn, NY investigative theater company): http://www.thecivilians.org/ (official website), http://www.facebook.com/TheCivilians (Facebook page), http://twitter.com/Civilians (Twitter page), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Civilians (Wikipedia), and http://www.youtube.com/theciviliansnyc (YouTube).

Ethan Lipton (Brooklyn, NY playwright): http://www.coffee-breath.com/ (official website), http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsL/lipton-ethan.html (Doollee.com: The Playwrights Database), https://www.facebook.com/ethan.lipton (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/ethanlipton (Twitter page).



Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.