Off-Broadway Review: EXCEPTION TO THE RULE (Roundabout)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on June 3, 2022

in Theater-New York


High school is a time of many rules, sometimes excessively so. How to dress, who to hang with, what’s in, what’s out, where to go, what to listen to — do you identify with the group or be true to yourself? And that’s just from one’s peers. Run afoul of authority figures and suffer being grounded, limited access to devices, embarrassment, shame, extra homework and Detention. A character in this story repeatedly states that being kept after school is a time to reflect on one’s transgression and come out the better for it. But has anyone, ever, reflected on “one’s transgressions and come out the better for it” during detention? At my Jesuit high school, detention was called JUG – an acronym for Justice Under God. Is detention really that deep? Does God have to come into the mix? In Dave Harris’s brilliant and exceptional new play, Exception to the Rule, God does not make an appearance but this exploration of detention and its societal parallels goes that deep and then some.

Malik Childs (Tommy), Amandla Jahava (Mikayla)

At an urban, public high school, six Black students are sentenced to detention. Five of them are detention regulars and know the ropes: Tommy the stoner, Abdul the jock, Dayrin the tough guy, Mikala the pretty girl, and Dasani the cool girl. The last inmate is Erika the smart girl. This is Erika’s first time in detention. Just six typical high school kids — flippant, over it, who just want to get their detention slips signed by the faculty warden so they can leave and get on with their lives. However, the faculty member is late. And no one can leave until he signs their slips. So they wait and talk and wait and fight and laugh and reconcile and reveal and smoke and pontificate and wait. Until one student decides to leave the room, regardless of the unnamed, horrific CONSEQUENCES. Unnamed though they may be, these students know severe punishment is a constant potential so no one dares leave without permission. Yet, why do they know there will be such ominous retribution? Will their friend come back? Will that person get away? Why that person instead of others? What’s keeping everyone else in their place? Is this really just high school detention or is it a metaphor for something bigger, deeper and much more detrimental?

MaYaa Boateng (Erika), Mister Fitzgerald (Abdul)

With Harris’s perceptive, multi-layered, thoroughly engaging writing, and director Miranda Haymon’s facile and intelligent direction, the play is both an afternoon in detention and a larger metaphor on the African American experience. Harris’s writing is so nicely structured that we are well into the play before realizing there is something much more profound at work in this high school classroom. While there are slight references to the prison system in both the writing and the imaginatively minimal scenic design by Reid Thompson and Kamil James, the play speaks more to the prison within the mind, the mental limitations placed on the African American psyche society through generations of overt and covert racial discrimination. Cha See’s heightened lighting design effectively helps the production shift from classroom reality to wider consideration. The script is not a victimized screed but a realistic look at the reverberations of systemic prejudice and what can be done to free the mind itself. Like the best one-room dramas, though often quite funny, this production continually increases the tension with surprising and powerful results.

Mister Fitzgerald (Abdul), MaYaa Boateng (Erika), Toney Goins (Dayrin),
Amandla Jahava (Mikayla), Malik Childs (Tommy), Claudia Logan (Dasani)

At the center of this reality slipping into metonymy are six, young, excellent actors. Taking their cue from the nuanced and textured writing, these performers all create full-fledged human beings instead of one-note characterizations. As the smart girl Erika, understudy Jordan Leigh McCaskill is simply wonderful. She is the embodiment of above-it-all, respectability politics. Within a few minutes of her first entrance, she refers to her classmates in detention as “you people” — a subtle but very telling throwaway line that immediately lets us know her view of herself and some members of her race. As stoner Tommy, understudy Oghenero Gbaje is a mass of teenage contradiction. He is endearing in his deep sensitivity that he protects with weed and a quick joke, until protection is no longer an option. As conflicted jock Adbul, Mister Fitzgerald fascinates with his re-invention of this classic archetype. His athlete in not dumb, but resigned to his seemingly over-whelming situational limitations, despite his personal potential and clear-eyed perception. When he walks into the room and announces “I’m home,” it is a devastating admission. Tough guy Dayrin is compellingly brought to life by Toney Goins. He more than anyone else speaks the hard truths, whether or not others want to hear them. He’s also a handsome, confident, ever-flirting teenager, which gets him into obvious trouble. Pretty girl Mikayla is the highly energized yet deeply felt creation of Amandla Jahava. She is that in-your-face extrovert, covering a vulnerable inner truth. Her simple, non-verbal acceptance of an unexpected compliment from Erika is one of the most moving moments of the show. Cool girl Dasani is hilariously and boisterously played by Claudia Logan. More than a few great laughs are mined from the origins of her first name. Yet for all her bluster and confidence, Logan finds multiple spots to reveal the sensitive and hurting side of Dasani as well.

MaYaa Boateng (Erika), Amandla Jahava (Mikayla), Toney Goins (Dayrin), Malik Childs (Tommy)

Director Miranda Haymon keeps everything moving at a fast though clear pace. Haymon’s staging is especially impressive considering how small the set actually is. There are moments when two characters have extended dialogue and we are asked to believe that the other four people sitting near them don’t hear their conversation. Hopefully, those sequences can soon be better integrated, as this sudden burst of theatricality in an otherwise realistic staging is a bit jarring. In any event, this is impressive work from a director on the rise.

Claudia Logan (Dasani), Amandla Jahava (Mikayla), MaYaa Boateng (Erika), Toney Goins (Dayrin)

Detention sucks but in this excellent Roundabout Theatre Company production of Exception to the Rule it is hardly a waste of time. So get your slip and get to the classroom. You’ll definitely reflect on society’s transgression. And maybe leave the better for it.

Mister Fitzgerald (Abdul), MaYaa Boateng (Erika), Claudia Logan (Dasani),
Amandla Jahava (Mikayla), Malik Childs (Tommy), Toney Goins (Dayrin)

photos by Joan Marcus, 2022

Amandla Jahava (Mikayla), Mister Fitzgerald (Abdul), MaYaa Boateng (Erika),
Malik Childs (Tommy), Claudia Logan (Dasani), Toney Goins (Dayrin)

Exception to the Rule
Roundabout Theatre Company
Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St
ends on June 26, 2022 (reviewed on May 25, 2022)
for tickets ($30), call 212.719.1300 or visit Roundabout

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