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‘Lockdown’ frees up discussion about education post-Katrina

6th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Philip Stelly
Contributing Writer

New Orleanians are passionate about a lot of things: The Saints, second lines, Mardi Gras, music and who makes the best gumbo. We’re seemingly inured to murder, but vocal about police brutality. And everyone here has an opinion about education pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.

The storm easily washed away a system of neighborhood schools that was already fraying. What replaced it is three different school systems accompanied by the mass firings of unionized teachers, and a surge in fresh-faced teachers via Teach for America.

As New Orleans became the poster child for education reform in America, have residents traded one set of problems for another? Don’t we have the same old problems of racial discrimination and class distinction? Are residents further divided by origin of birth (generational residents versus those that came from somewhere else)? And what about the children? Are they really learning as the education system continues to churn?

These are some of the questions explored in “Lockdown,” a new play that ended its current run last weekend at Ashé Cultural Arts Center. “Lockdown” follows five adults whose lives are touched by the education system in different ways. As the play opens, we meet Ms. Viola (Troi Bechet), a veteran union teacher who is fired after Katrina and now finds her grandson suspended from school.

Other characters introduce themselves. Mr. Dashir (Michael “Quess” Moore) is an English teacher pushing his students to excel while administrators questions his tone and tactics in the classroom. Ms. Masenda (Rebecca Mwase) is a part-time creative writing teacher focused on gender, sexuality and oppression in a school that does not allow her to be openly gay. Ms. Marshall (Thena Robinson-Mock) is an attorney fighting the school to prison pipeline. Finally, Mr. Ostoja (Derek Roguski), is a green Teach for America teacher questioning his place in the changing educational landscape.

These back stories are close to the actors’ real-life stories. All have either taught in schools or worked with young people in New Orleans schools. Roguski, for example, joined Teach for America and moved to New Orleans in 2008. Until recently, Moore was an English teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).

Because their characters are based on personal experience, the actors shared writing duties. The actors use spoken word and skits to highlight a series of topics impacting the current educational environment. Music is kept to a minimum and a multimedia screen is used to deliver images of schools, photos of the writer/actors as young children as well as text featuring paternalistic elements of the KIPP school system philosophy.

The story line is admittedly strong, says Michael “Quess” Moore, who is a driving force behind the entire production. “As educators, we saw things we did not like and we wanted to address them,” he said.

The high point of the 75-minute production came near the end as the veteran teacher Ms. Viola and Mr. Ostoja meet ostensibly to discuss the fate of Ms. Viola’s nephew. What they really talk about is Ms. Viola’s pain at having to leave the students she loves after a 35-year career as well as the pain of having to watch Mr. Ostoja, who has two years’ teaching experience, teach three subjects for which he reluctantly admits he is not qualified.

That conversation sparked additional conversation after the play. At the performance I attended, about a 100 audience members shared their passionately held views about the current educational landscape. Phrases like institutional racism, cultural insensitivity and paternalistic charter schools were offered up and discussed. The play seemed preachy at points, but for this audience, the play was preaching to the choir. The play was the perfect vehicle to vent about mostly what’s wrong with education in New Orleans.

As the audience praised the performance of Lockdown for reaching them emotionally and as interesting as the subsequent discussion was, it was a room full of adults, with a couple of students. All thing considered, “Lockdown” should be seen by more people, especially more young people. Too bad its current run was all too brief.

This article originally published in the May 6, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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