'Exception to the Rule' review — an eye-opening stint in detention

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    May 18, 2022

    With Exception to the Rule, provocative playwright Dave Harris takes audiences into the broken carceral system that exists within predominantly Black high schools across the nation. The only problem with this Roundabout Theatre Company production is that it gilds the lily by presenting the action as if it were a thriller, when the play is actually documentary theatre.

    The show opens with a group of rowdy kids reporting to detention. There is Mikayla (Amandla Jahava, a total spitfire) whose infraction is wearing too short a skirt; Dasani (Claudia Logan), who simply wants to serve her time in peace; the mad-dog Dayrin (Toney Goins), who continues to bare his fangs even after he’s been trounced; wannabe loverboy Tommy (Malik Childs); peaceful-until-he's-set-off tough guy Adbul (Mister Fitzgerald); and Erika (MaYaa Boateng), an overachiever who the students worship as the girl who will make it out of the hood.

    With the exception of Erika, they all know the drill because they are repeat offenders with no hope of redemption — even though an intercom announcement frequently reminds them that detention is meant to help them become “a better, more agreeable person.” Clearly the system is not working. Despite that, their warden/teacher, Mr. Bernie, doesn’t have to show up for them to obey the orders that have been imposed upon them. 

    Harris's point is that in Black-majority K-12 education, detention often approximates prison. Having taught in NYC schools since 2004, I agree. With their barred windows and metal detectors, many public high schools look like prisons. Worse, they replicate slave culture by transforming students into compliant drones with frightening triggers.

    During my final teaching assignment at a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, that trigger was the word “bowl,” which compelled children to hold their wrists in front of them as if they were shackled together and to blow air into their cheeks as if they were goldfish. When I asked a colleague what this meant, I was told that “we put a bowl in their mouths and hands so that they can’t speak or do anything wrong.” But children who cannot speak are unable to defend themselves. And so it is in Exception to the Rule.

    The trigger that keeps these students in check is a warning about consequences with “zero tolerance” for breaking the rules. “If you don’t know what that means,” an intercom announcement warns, “then we will give you a detention.” This lack of logic becomes more absurd, though no less realistic as the play continues.

    The only person to question this system is Erika. Boateng’s casting as the darkest skinned person in the production is striking because Erika is a perfect student who has learned to play “white.” This comes to a head after she lashes out at everyone around her for their failure to understand the system.

    Erika has made many sacrifices to escape the fate of her community. But in swallowing that poison pill, she has become as detestable as the people who will one day discriminate against her ― even as they hold her up as “one of the good ones.”

    Sarita Fellows's costume design is straight out of any high school in Brownsville. Kamil James and Reid Thompson's co-design of the set feels like the soul-sucking classroom of an actual high school. Cha See's lighting and Lee Kinney's sound design are inventive and serve the cinematic quality of the production well, though I'd still prefer to see a more straightforward production without those elements.

    Miranda Haymon directs Exception’s many explosive, schadenfreude-inducing, and hilarious moments with a clear hand. Most potently, she understands that people who live in poverty will wage war over the smallest issues ― because they have nothing else but their pride to hold onto.

    However, she falters with the play’s quieter moments, resulting in a yo-yo between saggy inertia and manic highs. Additionally, she and Boateng present Erika as if the character was a visitor from another planet. While holding herself apart is a fine character choice for Erika, it reads as needlessly exaggerated and unconvincing. It felt as if Erika was pretending to be clueless when she clearly already knew the score.

    Where Exception soars is through Harris's salient points about prison and the cast of boisterous troublemakers who bring those points to life ― particularly Jahava, Childs, and Fitzgerald, who seamlessly connect their characters’ naivete to their random explosions of cruelty and desires for something more. Additional credit must be given Logan’s and Goins's impassioned attempts to devour the entire stage.

    Everyone should see this play, especially NYC mayor Eric Adams and his school chancellor, if only to challenge them to take exception to the rule that NYC’s decades-old, failed policies continue to prepare Black and brown students for a life in prison.

    Exception to the Rule is at Roundabout Theatre Company's Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre through June 26. Get Exception to the Rule tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

    Photo credit: Amandla Jahava, Mister Fitzgerald, MaYaa Boateng, Malik Childs, Claudia Logan, and Toney Goins in Roundabout Underground’s Exception to the Rule. (Photo by Joan Marcus)