By Eexception to the rule at the Steinberg Center of the roundabout.
Photo: Joan Marcus, 2022
If I hadn’t seen that from Dave Harris Miscellaneous play this season Tambo & Bone at Playwright’s Horizons, Maybe I didn’t understand my reaction to his play at the Black Box Theater in the Roundabout, exception to the rule. That’s not quite right either – exception deliberately dwells in its ambiguities, so it is folly to pretend to understand. but tambo cracks open exception in a way; It is fortunate that the two pieces are produced so close together.
The elevator pitch for exception to the ruleat least, is clear: it is The Breakfast Club meets No exit. When five black teenagers enter room 111 on a Friday afternoon to serve detention – first romantic Tommy (Malik Childs) and glamorous Mikayla (Amandla Jahava), then Mikayla’s unfriendly ex-boyfriend Dayrin (Toney Goins), free spirit Dasani (Claudia Logan), and the principled Abdul (Mister Fitzgerald) – we hear a stern voice on the intercom warning all students to behave themselves in the hallways. “There’s no school on Monday,” says the voice as the door slams shut behind them. “Have a safe weekend.” We’re not more than a few minutes in room 111 when we begin to wonder if maybe the kids are locked up, forgotten, and in permanent detention.
They’re all puzzled that the supervising teacher hasn’t shown up, but that confuses them less than the presence of the sixth student – Erika (MaYaa Boateng) or, as Abdul calls her, “college-bound Erika”. The others, all regulars, know her from her academic performance, although she doesn’t seem to have met any of them. Overly prudish, nervously tugging at their sleeves and stunned by the rules – can’t they even get something from the machine? — Erika is a fish in uncharted waters. But she’s also the kind of fish that wastes little time being bossy with the other sea creatures. Dayrin has been telling Tommy about Mikayla’s sexual history (“a bad girl is a girl who sucks your… soul dry,” says Tommy, still innocent), and in the midst of a hilarious argument about it that, Erika protests.
I thought detention was quiet.
A place where everyone remembers the mistakes that got them here and then learns not to make the same mistakes again.
And you leave differently than you came.
Why else would they bring you here?
The answer, of course, is that the “she” and the “you” are not exactly what they appear to be. These teenagers face authority, the state, white supremacy and the system. Distortions over the intercom and increasingly frightening noises from the hallway make the school appear first like a prison, then like a glittering symbol for prison, a metaphor for the circular inner-city pipeline these teenagers are trapped in. Even long after the point at which it’s obvious that they’re stranded, they’re too scared of the consequences (a word repeated in resounding tones on the intercom) to do anything. If you ask for help, you will end up in detention; showing anger gets you in jail; If you need food, you end up in detention; Expressing sexuality will get you in jail. If you’re in jail, you’ll end up in jail. Only Erika – for reasons she won’t yell at Dayrin until the end of the play – has the option to escape, and to do so she must choose to turn her back on the others and, as Dayrin says, forget them .
Designed by Reid Thompson and Kamil James, the production is a cage within a cage. The cramped black box in the basement is already an intimidating space; I’m sure it has exits – Roundabout is very up to date on fire codes – but it does feels like a trap. A glowing outline of a box surrounds the otherwise realistic Room 111, and the small audience surrounds the play area on three sides. We are therefore only a few feet away from the actors, and director Miranda Haymon has them perform in an elevated style, bringing them even closer. The audience forms a compression ring around the students. Our laughter swells when they insult each other (Harris has a keen sense of deprecation), which seems to spur their rivalry – which prevents their solidarity. When they get out of this monstrous schoolroom, they still have to deal with it us.
Tambo & Bone — a three-act play in which Harris leapfrogged from 19th century minstrel to today’s stadium rap culture to a non-white future – is by far the more complex piece, but it also takes into account the audience’s laughter and the way it reifies racial categories. In tambo, Harris set up comic punchlines to rebound at the laughing person; Here he is more interested in how a joke affects intraplay dynamics between characters. How does Dayrin’s casual misogyny (which might just be for the lolz) translate into truth-telling, and why would she do that? he be the one who sees Erika most closely? Cruel, funny, clear-eyed Dayrin contains the play’s most interesting contradictions, and Goins also gives it the finest performance. The others play big, but he has a polished talent for shading every moment to make tiny shifts in something loud and splashy. The others, however, have more trouble playing between broad – Erika pogo-sticks around like a freaky Looney Toons rabbit when she thinks she has grass in her hair – and their characters’ more vulnerable moments.
The piece lasts around 90 minutes, but it still feels like just the beginning of something – it ends on a questioning upswing that leaves vague what could be spicy. And there it is Tambo & Bone helps in understanding. In this three-part play, Harris builds provocations (in act one, for example, the minstrels murder the portrayed playwright) and then, rather than answer his own questions about marketed and internalized racism, in act two, poses them again in act three. There are questions in it exception to the rule also Foucaultian on communities learning to police themselves, but we never feel the full power of Harris’s analysis because he only asks it once. Late game development suggests that Erika, the “exception” to the title, might even be will the rule and brought in a rueful, angry thought about the insidious nature of American power. There is a second and third question asked by EException, Most of them are asked by Dayrin – but the play never reaches them. Erika and Dayrin have their fight and she leaves. Oh how I wanted her to come back. What I learned from Tambo & Bone is that Harris only gets better as he puts his characters back in the ring for the second round.
exception to the rule is at the Roundabout’s Steinberg Center for Theater through June 26.