The subway rattles overhead, with tilted lights flickering over the beige metal chairs tumbled across the stage, bolted up the walls and suspended from the ceiling, an ordinary American classroom twisted up into a nightmare. Before the story opens, the audience is sworn into the Superior Court of New York for a murder trial, but this school is exactly where “The Defendant” begins: with an 8-year-old girl wearing a pink jumper and a bow in her hair, meeting up with her friends to eat school-provided Cheerios before class.
Minutes later, these kids are high school juniors whose drastic academic disadvantages are the least of their problems. Biology, poetry and Greek drama are foreign to these students; instead, they know poverty, gang violence and rape. Moreover, they have had six teachers give up on them, with the most recent calling one student a “sociopath,” snatching up her purse and storming out five minutes before the lunch bell.
This weekend, “The Defendant,” written by former New York City public school teacher and current Yale School of Drama student Elia Monte-Brown DRA ’14 delivers its world premiere at the Yale Cabaret. “Champions adjust,” Serena (Melanie Field DRA ’16), the students’ new teacher, confidently informs her unruly students her first day on the job. “Truth is, we don’t really know what will happen in life, so it’s important to follow our passions.”
To her students, these words likely ring hollow with false hope. But from Monte-Brown, Serena’s speech is perhaps a call to action: a reminder that the writer herself is working out a sense of social commitment through art. “The Defendant” develops with the same purpose, challenging the inadequacies of public education, while still exploring the deeply human experiences of friendship, family and first love. You’ll feel the play’s energy pounding in your ribcage, and you won’t be sure whether it’s trying to get in or out.
This play bites. It knows how to tease, laugh and dance, but it’s not afraid to yell or push or point. Throughout the performance, we empathize with Serena as she struggles to gain control and respect in her classroom. Amused by her own lack of preparation for her impossible job, she ponders, “I will somehow integrate bio and poetry. The study of life, as explored by Langston Hughes.” But at the same time, her rowdy and troubled students command our compassion. These actors embody their characters with a relentless ferocity that matches Monte-Brown’s script, through slouches and swaggers, bit lips and shy first kisses. This is a cast that believes its story. When a character pulls up a chair in the intimate Cabaret theater, stares you down and tells you how it feels to sit in the subway station imagining life on Park Avenue, you’d better listen.
Extra credit goes to Idea (Chalia La Tour DRA ’16) and Ruben (Julian Elijah Martinez DRA ’16), whose blossoming romance, set against their own painful backstories, makes us chuckle and catches our breath. Ruben’s expressions flow seamlessly with his lines, creating a stage presence so endearing that you’ll simply want to hug him. Idea, too, strikes a remarkably credible chord with her youthful energy, repressed past and fear of a world that has already hurt her. Also be sure to look out for the many instances of double casting, a clever artistic touch that makes it even harder to break down this world in black and white.
But after a fast hour-and-a-half, the lights click off. There’s applause and the audience files out of the Cabaret, leaving emptied glasses and forgotten programs on closely-packed round tables. It is in this moment, when “The Defendant” runs out of lines, that it is truly put to the test. Is it a choice between art and social awareness, or can a performance grapple with both? As “The Defendant” leaves us in discussion about both this school system nightmare and the depth of its characters, the play passes with honors.