Review: EXIT STRATEGY by Beyond August Productions
by Michael Meigs

No, this small, impressive play is not a comedy. That tag line was probably a marketing decision, for laughter attracts more viewers than drama, just as honey lures more bees than vinegar.


The ambitious and alert Beyond August Productions brings us Exit Strategy by Chicago playwright Ike Holter. It's set firmly in Chicago's divisions of class, race, and ethnicity. Austin is but a faint echo of all that, but even so, the gentrification that has pushed eastward past I-35 is evidence that similar forces are at work. DIsadvantaged communities remain at a disadvantage, and our embattled corps of public school teachers also resembles U.S. troops caught in the Battle of the Bulge. "Nuts!" was MacAuliffe's reply to a demand for surrender, and that attitude resonates unspoken in Holter's play.


Remember all those heartening World War II dramas about the squad or platoon or company facing enemy fire? They were inevitably peopled with an Anglo (usually the commanding officer) and an assortment of U.S. provincials or ethnic stereotypes. Those fictions dated from the 1940's and 1950's, so only rarely was a Black soldier included and almost never was there a hint of someone LGBQT. Holter has rectified that in his contemporary Chicago dugout, which is the teacher's lounge of a high school situated in a Black neighborhood, almost certainly in South Chicago well beyond the precincts of the elite University of Chicago. Lest you miss it, he's dubbed this school Tumbldn High School.


(via BAP)


Darren Scharf (via BAP)Madison Palomo, Ismael Soto III (via BAP)This is a sensitive, impressive portrait of hopes raised and hopes menaced. The Chicago school board has decreed that Tumbldn High School is to be closed down after the current school year. The faculty members who wrestle with this coming doom range from Darren Scharf's morose Arnold, the principal, and the perky, uninformed vice-principal Ricky played by Payton Trahan to bilingual Hispanics Luce (Ismael Soto III) and Jania (Madison Palomo) to  the exuberant Black no-nonsense teacher Sadie (Adriana Boyd-Lewis).


Add to them the dogged, ferocious long-serving white English teacher Pam (Jennifer Gonzalez), who's a cynical truth teller deeply devoted to her students and to this end-of-the-line school. Holter draws these portraits with sharp dialogue, crafting and gradually revealing the relationships between and among these characters, from "We were never friends, were we?" to "Can we be friends and maybe more?" to "Regrets haunt both of us and render us numb.


Repartee is sharp and swift throughout. Director Rodolfo Robles Cruz does the audience a favor: he emphasizes naturalistic speech, avoiding precision of enunciation, often allowing characters to speak over one another in disputes. He presents ethnic speech, particularly that of Donnie (Edwin Lucas Anderson), the sole student we see or hear, without adjustments to make it easier for the ears of the mostly white audience to track. Donnie is justifiably angry. He's hopeful but frustrated, and like all of his classmates he wants to believe the soothing lie "You're someone special." He plays a key role in resisting the school board's Diktat.

Edward Lucas Anderson (via BAP)

Inspired by Donnie's off-the-reservation digital efforts to defend Tumbledn and prevent the closure, most of the staff rally to endorse and promote protest tactics that have failed earlier in similar situations. The thrill of instant fame on network television is heady. Relations among the faculty members shift both for good and for ill; the cause of Arnold's entrenched cynicism is revealed in an unexpected duologue.


And then, in the end, it's the end. Teachers and Donnie bring folding stadium seats to witness the outcome of their efforts. The silent reactions of Edwin Lucas Anderson as Donnie  are deeply moving; the heart of playwright Holter's call for justice and attention to need is embodied in Anderson's mute witness in the final moments as the light finally and irrevocably dies.


Beyond August Productions again enriches Austin's theatre offerings with a play of conscience featuring an accomplished and notably diverse cast.



Click to view the program for Beyond August Productions' EXIT STRATEGY

(Click to view the program for EXIT STRATEGY)

Click to view the program for Beyond August Productions' EXIT STRATEGY


Exit Strategy
by Ike Holter
Beyond August Productions

June 21 - July 14, 2024
Rosette Theatre, Baker Center
3908 Avenue B
Hyde Park
Austin, TX, 78751

June 21st to July 14th, 2024

Rosette Theatre, Baker Building, Ave. B at 39th Street