By: Jul. 14, 2014
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My Sunday covering the Capital Fringe brought me to two productions that demonstrate the beauty of such a festival. In few other settings might one, for example, be able to watch a solo autobiographical performance about the challenges and rewards of teaching in a community college and a Tony Award-nominated play depicting apartheid South Africa in the span of a few hours. While This Gonna Be On the Test, Miss? and Master Harold...and the Boys are far from perfect productions, each offer something that would make them recommended viewing for certain Fringe audiences.

Ronna J. Levy

Sometimes actress-turned unexpected community college remedial English teacher Ronna J. Levy's autobiographical piece, This Gonna Be on the Test, Miss? - with adequate direction by Kel Haney - features a compelling, interesting, and different yet accessible story and a solid communicator delivering it. Levy takes us on a tour of her childhood self to present day. A theatre nerd in school, she went to the University of Massachusetts for a communications degree because her father wanted her to major in something practical. Determined to make it as an actress post-university, she set off for New York City and took a teaching job to help make ends meet. With the help of a more experienced teacher, Lee, she learned the ins and out of the best ways to teach in urban settings. A move out West to pursue more acting opportunities, and an experience teaching remedial English in Los Angeles helped Ronna change how she viewed herself: as a teacher first and foremost rather than a performer who taught to make income when the acting work was slow or non-existent. We learn the powerful impact her students had on her life - as she became more acutely aware of their talents, struggles, and the complexities of their lives - and how her years teaching those that have far from an easy path to tread in life has its rewards and downsides. Fundamentally, she learns as much from her students as they learn from her and comes to terms with what's reality and what's myth about the American educational experience for these kinds of students. It's complex and far from black and white.

Levy is a comfortable and engaging performer and is well-equipped to give voice not only to her younger and modern-day self, but those students and fellow educators who impacted her journey to the present. Her ability to swiftly and adeptly give live to the people of her past and differentiate between them is noteworthy and makes for an interesting and highly diverse solo performance that one doesn't always see in Fringe settings. Her story comes alive the most as she shares with us the trials, tribulations, and successes of her students - whether a doctor from China seeking a new career in the States, single mothers, young men raised on the streets, or a Haitian immigrant. The rich characterizations of those she teaches are hugely successful in defining the world in which she operates as are Caite Hevner Kemp's projections. If I had one or two criticisms, however, the multiple possible endings to the show do not allow for the last moments to pack as powerful of a punch as I would probably like to see. Likewise, a brief diatribe into the changing face of education at the community college level - complete with statistics - doesn't have much of a place in this production as currently realized. It is relevant, but the director and the former need to find a way to integrate it more seamlessly into the more theatrical proceedings so as not to come off like a tangent.

The Rude Mechanicals production of Athol Fugard's apartheid era play, Master Harold...and the Boys, offers something that there's usually not a lot of in Fringe - at least in the DC version where there's usually a slew of solo shows, some zany "original" musicals/plays, and maybe one or two productions of some off-kilter, lesser-known, but pre-existing works. Here, we have a Tony-nominated, dramatic, and traditional play staged in an intimate setting. Despite its pedigree, Fugard's creation is not seen a whole lot so I did jump at the chance to see it performed.

Likely to do well with the older and perhaps more intellectual crowd seeking access to challenging ideas, this play depicts a single afternoon in the life of a privileged, white South African boy, Hally (recent high school graduate Matt Zimmerman), and two servants that work for his family - Sam (Marcus Salley) and Willie (Roody Labaze). As Willie and Sam gleefully practice some dance moves, Hally returns from school. It's clear he has a longstanding, comfortable relationship with the two, especially Sam. He can go head to head with on virtually any subject. Following a difficult phone call with his mother about his father, the afternoon takes a dark turn when Hally lashes out at Sam - a man who treated him with kindness at his darkest moments - suddenly treating him less than his equal and spouting race-infused remarks learned from his father. The complexities of their unequal relationship are revealed. Against the backdrop of apartheid policies in South Africa, the issue of race relations is explored at a micro-level, made more powerful because of the obvious rapport between the servant and the "master" on display for the better part of the nearly ninety minute performance.

Fred Franklin does his best to bring the themes of this complex tale to the forefront in this production, but for the first part of the performance I witnessed, there was a lack of urgency and nuance that made the ending less than powerful than it might have otherwise been. Although a little young for the role, Salley does quite well with the role of Sam and demonstrates his difficult predicament - both as a black man in South Africa aware of all of the complex racial issues at play in the country, and as a wiser, older friend to Hally. He has a pleasing speaking voice and a stage presence that's very well suited to his character. Zimmerman, likewise, shows considerable promise as an actor. Perhaps in a setting other than Fringe he would have been able to delve into the complexities of his character a bit more, but for a young actor, he makes a strong debut in the festival. Rounding out the cast, Labaze is quietly steady as Willie, keenly internalizing the activity around him.

I give credit to the Rude Mechanicals for presenting this difficult work in a Fringe setting and without a doubt, it's worth a look.

"This Gonna Be on the Test, Miss?" plays at Caos on F - 923 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - as part of this year's Capital Fringe. For a list of upcoming performances and ticket information, consult the show page on the Fringe website. It runs about 60 minutes in length.

"Master Harold...and the Boys" plays at the Goethe Institut - 812 7 Street, NW in Washington - as part of this year's Capital Fringe. For a list of upcoming performances and ticket information, consult the show page on the Fringe website. It runs about 90 minutes in length.

Graphics: Courtesy of official Capital Fringe website.


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