BWW Reviews: A KID LIKE JAKE Explores the Line Between Acceptance and Exploitation
It's rare that I have to write three drafts of a review before I think I have it right, but for A Kid Like Jake, that's the number. Three.
So why three drafts? Quite frankly, it's hard to find the right way to say, "This play made me so irritated and downright infuriated, and that's why I loved it," or "Who knew that a show about a family applying to private elementary schools would get me thinking about how we talk about gender identity in this country. And while we're at it, is anyone else upset over how Laverne Cox is being talked about in the media for her Emmy nomination. Yes, she's a transgender actress, and she's the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy, but she's nominated for her incredible performance on Orange is the New Black, not for her gender. Why do we have to constantly remind ourselves that she's different or was born with different parts, and if she's 'transgender actress Laverne Cox' than why don't we hear things like 'genetically and anatomically female actress Tina Fey?'"
This is a show with one solid goal in mind: spark conversation. And that it does quite well. It's the intent of Daniel Pearle's smart and powerful play to challenge the audience's thoughts on the education system, gender identity, and relationship between the two. Even the most socially liberal among us are bound to have a new perspective afterwards, and some of what's presented is bound to make us angry and agitated.
Pearle's play centers on Greg and Alex (Darren Scharf and Lara Wright) who are desperate to enroll their 4-year-old son, Jake, in one of the top private elementary schools in the area. The process-with its tests, interviews, and essays-is a daunting one, so naturally they consult Judy (Laura Galt-Snavely), one of the teachers at Jake's pre-school for advice. Judy is quick to point out that Jake is intelligent and creative, both of which make him an attractive candidate to the most prestigious academies, but the thing that makes Jake truly unique is his affinity for "gender-variant play." Judy suggests that Alex revise the application essays to include mention of Jake's love of Disney princesses and playing dress-up, a decision which forces Greg and Alex to confront what their child's interests could, or could not, say about his identity.
It's Pearle's writing that makes A Kid Like Jake so riveting. Pearle never lets us meet Jake. We only hear him being talked about, and he's often spoken of as an object or a thing rather than a person. Most of the scenes involve how to present or sell Jake to the private schools his parents wish him to attend. Even his "gender-variant play" is discussed as a bargaining chip. When Jake starts acting out, he's talked about as a problem that needs to be controlled, something that intensifies when the question is raised regarding whether or not Jake identifies as a girl. Never once are we told that any of the three central characters have asked Jake why he's acting out, why he's fascinated by the Disney princesses, why he enjoys dressing as a girl, or even what school he wants to go to. Everyone talks about how they want what's best for Jake, but no one thinks of asking him, and that's precisely what makes the play so infuriating and excellent.
I also applaud Pearle for tapping into how there is a line between acceptance and exploitation that is often ignored or unseen. When Judy suggests that Alex use Jake's affinity for more feminine things to her advantage in the application process, you can hear the audience gasp. The thought that a child's undefined and perceived gender identity could be exploited is disgusting, and yet we do it with both children and adults. Anyone else who is different from the norm for that matter, can and will be exploited. It's ridiculous and disgusting that when we as a culture accept people for being different, we constantly have to label them, remind ourselves of what we accepted, and pat ourselves on the back for being so accepting.
Praise must also be given to director Josh Denning and his talented cast. Denning places the small, 50 seat audience on stage with the actors, creating an extremely intimate and intense experience. The dialogue and action feels so organic and real that it's sometimes easy to forget that you're not watching a real-life couple going through a real-life situation. Darren Scharf is a tad diminutive and easily glossed over at first as Jake's father, but he explodes in later moments of the play. Lara Wright, who brilliantly showed of her dramatic chops in Bethany a few months ago, does so again as Jake's mother, Alex. Wright manages to be snotty and pompous (the character is the quintessential New York, type-A, businesswoman snob) but remarkably sympathetic. Laura Galt has an equally paradoxical role as the teacher, Judy. With her soothing voice and caring eyes, it's easy to see how attentive she is to her students and their families, but at the same time, there seems to be a bit of an ulterior motive regarding where her students proceed in their academic endeavors. While his role is easily the smallest in the show, Josh Wechsler gives a strong performance as a nurse at Alex's doctor's office. A late scene between him and Alex is a linchpin moment of the show.
So, infuriating though it may be, A Kid Like Jake is a finely crafted and extremely well-executed drama. Theater should make you think, and this piece certainly makes you contemplate it over and over again.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours. No intermission.
A KID LIKE JAKE, produced by Half and Half Productions and MacTheatre, plays the McCallum Fine Arts Academy (5600 Sunshine Dr, Austin 78756) now thru August 10th. Tickets are pay what you can. For more information, please visit http://www.halfandhalfproductions.org/