A system in crisis will undergo a lockdown. I sat out the Bolivian census lockdown stuck indoors for 24 hours, but a quick Google search suggests the word can be as versatile to suggest lockdown on liquor sales or web traffic. The just-past Boston manhunt lockdown suggests a situation where powers-that-be are invested in nothing happening. More than total control is at stake. An organization in total control does not need to take such drastic measures; rather, it is an attempt to re-assert control by shutting down all other forms of action. When the daily commotion of city streets is too difficult for police or census-takers to conduct their business: lockdown.
Junebug Production’s recent play, Lockdown, began with a musical lamentation of the lockdown. “Our minds are on lockdown.” “Lockdown” is one of several words of the public school lexicon the actors observe is borrowed from the prison, where lockdown is a routine mechanism. (Other of these borrowings include “isolation” and “general population.”) I remember my one time in a new Orleans Public School during lockdown being one of the more surreal experiences of my life. No one made a sound. No one left or entered the building (save police) and afterwards, no one was very willing to talk bout it again. It represents a period of time outside of normal school time. It belongs neither to teachers or students, but to the institution of the school itself.
Junebug took issue then, not with teachers or students, but with this system. New Orleans public schooling, the play suggests, is constantly ostracizing, harrying and in some cases imprisoning students that step out of line. The red and yellow tape lines that ran through the Ashè’s theatre emphasized some of the specifics at stake. The play revolved around several stories, the most prominent of which was the plight of a teenager, Wilton, who despite talents and intellect, is charged with assault for throwing a pencil at a teacher. It addresses common practices that include hand-cuffing twelve year olds and shunting “problematic” students to alternative schools to isolate them from impressionable peers.
The play was at its strongest when, by dint of rap and aria, the performers directly indicted this system. The protest song, is, after all, an old and tried form, and the power of the human voice directly assaying wrong-doing is rarely weak if done well. Yet for the strength of this appeal, one could easily be frustrated by the lack of specificity. Why wasn’t KIPP mentioned by name, only by innuendo? Policy was referred to, but policies were never. It was a tale of good people oppressed by bad design, weathered teachers and TFA novitiates alike, but there was no representation of the down-right bad teachers and careless administrators.
After all, this was a play. This is where the piece faltered. As an excoriation Lockdown was phenomenal. As a play, it was painfully contrived. I had no expectation of seeing Thespian mastery, but the lopsided metaphors preachy conversation set-ups were immense energy-vacuums for the story-telling and song. Very few plays can attain political poise and theatrical quality at the same time. This was not one of them. At its best moments of play-acting (generally consisting of performers replicating teachers arguing), one might be reminded of Soviet morality plays, where one character speaks according to the guidelines of one doctrine and another by the other guidelines. One could guess the victorious party. Amateurish is too kind a word because it connotes at least a respect for the genre. Lockdown tied theatre to the soapbox and made it speak, which is a pity because their message was certainly worth a soapbox.
In the end I was left wondering about subtlety. Surely the first performance of Antigone was written of as far too bluntly political? Uncompromising and uncomplex. But did it have more, something that made it timeless? Obviously, but maybe it is only that we can belive in Antigone in a way we were never allowed to believe in the characters of Lockdown. They were props for an argument, and nothing strange or interesting was done that was not part of that argument. Nevertheless, I can recommend that you go see it, because the argument is a good one and a necessary one, and where it is spoken and sung firmly, the production shines.
Lockdown has been playing at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. Its final two showings are this Saturday and Sunday.