Certain aspects of the school experience remain exciting whether you are a student or not. Field trips, for example, are fun no matter what. Likewise you are not likely to run into many education professionals who will complain about days off from school – I imagine it must be very exciting to work in a district where snow days are a thing. One piece of the education experience that does not continue to please on the other side of the desk, however, are assemblies. And boy did we get treated to a doozy of an assembly at the unnamed high school where I work.
As a student, assemblies are rad. You don’t have to go to class and as long as you play it cool, you can goof off with your friends instead of paying attention. There’s all kinds of assemblies: awards assemblies, pep rallies, the type where they play a really emotional video to remind you never to drink and drive. But never in my tenure as a student was I treated to an assembly that is actually a play.
Now I’m not going to give too many specific details about the play that I watched – the intentions of the play and playwright are in the right place, so I don’t want to besmirch their names that much (because there will be besmirching). This was a labor of love. It’s kind of like how a mainstream studio film that fails is fun to tear apart, but lackluster indie dramas are less so. Also there is the fact that I don’t remember the names of the show or the creator.
Taking place in 1964, the play followed what is known as the “Freedom Summer,” during which both black and white volunteers journeyed to Mississippi to register as many black voters as possible. The project famously lead to the deaths of three volunteers, but it also brought significant attention to the Civil Rights Movement. This was a volatile time in the history of the United States, and it is rightly deserving of some documentation, but this specific play isn’t the right method.
The main issue is that the play just isn’t active. The entire show (about 90 minutes) takes place at meetings, where characters recount their experiences. This is literally the opposite of the old maxim “show, don’t tell.” Speeches, speeches, speeches, occasionally broken up by two characters yelling at each other or spiritual singing. Then there’s the fact that the acting just was not good. A play is more than just its script; the director has to choose the right actors. It’s hard to judge these performers too harshly though, as they aren’t given much to work with. It’s a real chicken-egg situation.
If you had asked the playwright, however, he would see no faults in his work. The man was more focused on the fact that these events were important than on the fact that his play is not. In fact, he compared his own work – apparently a cycle of plays depicting the entire Civil Rights Movement – to the oeuvre of William Shakespeare (you know, from Shakespeare in Love). In 200 years we’ll be reading Romeo and Juliet and this play, whatever it was called. Say what you will about Shakespeare (I think he’s great, I don’t care if that’s controversial) but at least he knew your second act shouldn’t be twice as long as your first.
We still live in a backward country with regard to race, as much as some news outlets would like us to believe the opposite. It is important to understand where the country has been in order to help guide it in a new direction, especially for the teenagers who will one day be our country’s leaders (I’m talking about different teenagers – not the teens that attend Unnamed High School). Unfortunately this play is not the way to do that. Our students would have been much better off with another pep rally. Or a screening of Scared Straight! or something.