Broom Street Theater
Anne Blust (left) and Kayla Stelzel (right) in Broom Street Theater's <i>Class</i>
I appreciate an interesting idea and a fresh take because I know they aren't always easy to come by. But an interesting idea isn't always enough to keep an audience satisfied.
Over the years, I've seen a few Broom Street Theater shows that were inspired by really intriguing premises, like their look at Vogue Records' picture records in Vogue and the Anthology of American Folk Music in Minglewood Blues. Class, written by Coleman and directed by Tyler Falco Schott, looks at Jane Elliott's famous segregation "experiment." The show runs through Feb. 2 at Broom Street Theater.
Immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Iowa schoolteacher segregated her students based on their eye color. Initially, the blue-eyed kids received extra perks, compliments and encouragement while the brown-eyes kids were ridiculed and shunned. The following day, the conditions were reversed. By providing this eye-opening (pardon the pun) examination of prejudice and racism for her students, Elliot ignited both controversy and acclaim, appearing on The Tonight Show and inspiring television profiles and books.
Interesting, right? I think so, but unfortunately, the play is uneven in tone. When Schott writes, "It's going to get wacky" in the production notes, he isn't joking. I just don't know whether wackiness serves the subject. In Class, the school principal (Jeff Kelm with a large dose of goofiness) and a concerned parent (Anne Blust) visit the teacher, Miss Ryerson (Kayla Stelzel), in her classroom to investigate why little Jenna (Tess Klingele) came home in tears. The teacher then proceeds to conduct the experiment on them. The principal happily laps up the perks of being blue-eyed, while the mom is humiliated and denigrated for being brown-eyed. When they return the next day, their status has been reversed.
A few genuine laughs emerged, but most of the time, I felt like the audience was being scolded. The production tries too hard to illuminate and educate. When the story turned tragic, I felt more annoyed than outraged.
There are things to be admired here, though. The blocking is at times snappy and energetic. Klingele has a small part but makes a big impact, and when Stelzel muses about education and reminisces about teachers from her past, the language and performance feel true.
But too often the dialogue is stilted and contrived, and the performances sometimes veer into territory that is too broad. There is a distracting mishmash of the past and present, both in terms of costuming and language. Some is modern, and some is period.
There is a section in which Stelzel forces Blust to apologize to Kelm, and she can't get the word "apologize" out of her mouth. This is a tired and irritating bit of business. It was kind of funny when I would watch Happy Days and Fonzie was unable to say things like "I was wrong," but it seems strained and never-ending here.
A serious look at Elliot's work, set in the time period it originally occurred, with a large cast of children as the students, might make a better show for a company like Children's Theater of Madison. I will say this: I'm curious to learn more about Jane Elliot's idea and may watch the Frontline documentary. But ultimately, Class elicited the response I've had to many of Broom Street's productions: interesting ideas but convoluted results.
[Editor's note: This story is corrected to reflect that Class is being performed at Broom Street Theater.]