There is so much infuriating and thrilling going on around Gabrielle Reisman’s Catch the Wall that it is hard to know where to begin.
So, let’s start from the beginning.
Ms. Reisman has written a play that is both a celebration of bounce music and a look inside the New Orleans public school system. It is a multiple story narrative that tracks the struggles of parents, teachers, and, ultimately, students in one of the country’s great educational petri dishes. Incorporating song, dance, and a touch of the supernatural, The NOLA Project production, under the guidance of director Chris Kaminstein, has set off a bit of a concussive grenade over issues of identity, race and authorial privilege. In others words, questions have been raised of not only whether Ms. Reisman has gotten it right, but also whether she has any right to tell the story at all. She, and members of her company, have been called misguided, uninformed, insensitive and, on more than one occasion, outright racist. If you join the Facebook post-show discussion group, you’ll get the sense of what is going on with the show.
If you decide to wade in, there are some compelling and challenging ideas to parse over, and you should maintain an open spirit. However, keep this in mind: you will feel provoked. A number of the respondents will attempt to put you into either the defensive position of arguing against your being a racist or force you to establish your credentials to join the conversation. If you do the first, your defensiveness will then be used as evidence of your racism. If you do the second, you will be met with sanctimonious bromides about ways to educate yourself in things you already know a great deal about. Nothing is worse for people in the theatre to be educated by non-practitioners about subjects likes story circles and The Free Southern Theatre. If you find that some of the “dialogue” feels like it came straight out a re-education camp, a show trial, or a Maoist cell, you are not going crazy, because those shadows are there. Part of that strategy is to keep people out the action by holding the fear of accusation nearby. Do not let silence or acquiescence be your only options. Get in the game.
As engaging as the discussion on social media is, the more important, and more thought provoking, response comes from Rachel Lee whose essay/review In The Shadow of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Responding to The NOLA Project and Catch the Wall is a painstakingly fair and incredibly nuanced analysis of the show. Essentially, Lee, while praising both Reisman’s action of writing itself and a great deal of the artistry of the piece, is highly problematized by issues of accuracy, the authority of the writer, and a number of images and scenes that she feels cross the line into enculturated, albeit subtle, racism.
I do not take issue with Lee for her opinions of interpretation. Disappointment with staging choices, the questions she raises about performance motifs, and even her troubled reception of images that she felt called back to ghostings of racist tropes from the 19th Century are all fair game. After all, she saw the show she saw. To allude to Herbert Blau, the audience is what happens. Therefore, for her, that was the show that happened. However, where I do take issue are in her prescriptive suggestions for scope and her assertions of facts that are simply not so. To put it another way, much of her writing is musing about a show she would have liked to have seen rather than the one that was, and there are assertions she makes about the structure of public schools, much of it pulled from Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope, that are not true.
Let’s start with the first. It is the more practical. Lee talks of exploring “racial landscapes”, agonizes over the absence of a police presence, muses aloud about Reisman’s failure to tell the story of the lack of black males in the schools, and on other occasions looks to have the story expanded and deepened. Those are all good threads worth investigating in numerous future works, but Reisman and company have just over two hours to move through the time and space of an entire semester. Catch the Wall is not a HBO series nor a compendium of novels. It is a compact, ensemble exploration of the life of a school. On these occasions, Lee’s notes move away from genuine criticism and dangerously close to the mentality of a dramaturgical workshop where a teacher tells their student a radical idea how to fix their play.
On the issue of accuracy, I will use Lee’s own words to frame my counter:
The production misses the mark in other key ways, particularly in its characterization of the racialized and gendered dynamics of education in New Orleans. In the play we see the following power hierarchy: poor Black students answer to young, middle class teachers (both Black and white) who are newcomers to the city; these teachers are under the supervision of a female Black veteran principal who bemoans the death of the teachers’ union to her supervisor, a Black male charter company CEO (Martin Bradford) who in turn submits to an unidentified white woman in a suit (Kristin Witterschein) who appears to represent the state department of education. It is true that there is a rigid hierarchy in place, but it is not accurately personified in Catch the Wall. In Hope Against Hope, Carr explains:
“The vast majority of Recovery School District charter schools are overseen by either white male or black female principals, with a comparatively small number of black male or white female school leaders (which in and of itself sends an interesting message to New Orleans schoolchildren about who has authority in their community––and who does not). The black female principals tend to hire veteran New Orleans teachers, while the white male administrators rely more on younger teachers brought to the city through alternative recruitment programs.”
Thus the depiction of a Black veteran educator running a school staffed by TFA recruits and adhering to KIPP style discipline and culture policies does not quite ring true when it is much more likely that she would be running a school staffed by the few remaining veteran teachers (such as the embattled O. Perry Walker on the West Bank or Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in the 9th Ward). Neither does the casting of a Black man as the embodiment of authority in the charter hierarchy. This ignores the conspicuous absence of men of color in school leadership and obscures the racialized power dynamics at play. Placing some of the most heated ideological conversations in the play in the mouths of people of color dilutes the natures of these debates, feeding into the myth of a “colorblind” education system and letting white reformers off the hook…
This runs counter to my own experience of working in public schools. Because of my position, I had access to four schools structures over the course of any given day. In those schools, I encountered a middle school principal who was a veteran African-American teacher and that, for reasons both ideological and financial, cleaned house of fellow veteran teachers and stocked her pond with TFA members. Just down the road a male African-American high school principal sought a mix of the young and old and was beloved by both. Finally, the majority of my time was spent in another middle school hallway where three African-American men presided over their own classrooms, another was the head counselor, and a fifth was the dean of students. I simply cannot believe that I happened to find the three exceptions to Carr and Lee’s rules.
My counter to her, and Ms. Carr by association, is that each school is an independent entity created by its diverse mix of neighborhoods, socio-economic forces, cultural traditions, and day-to-day life. To suggest otherwise, is to fall prey to the reductive thinking that dominates corporate organizations that either turn the population of every single school into a monolithic entity that operates under uniform guidelines or creates a binary of grizzled, wise veterans versus eager, bustling reformers. Just as no city is alike, no school has the same energies. Given my understanding of school organization, Ms. Reisman’s fictional place of learning is completely believable and all too sad. If you are genuinely interested in how such a place could come into existence, just ask, it can be explained in a paragraph.
All that being said, I will once again encourage you to not only attend Catch the Wall in its last weekend but also read Lee’s essay. Both are worth it.