The latest Yale Cabaret offering, The Defendant, addresses the quality of life of the underprivileged—in this case, students our educational system is failing. The play, by third-year YSD actress Elia Monte-Brown, is based on the playwright’s experiences as a teacher in the New York school system, a background that injects a realism into the play, even as the play moves a bit tendentiously from Welcome Back, Kotter-style classroom hi-jinx to something much more dramatic. The play begins with charges against “the defendant”—Idea (Chalia La Tour)—that almost drop into the background, but for dark reminders along the way that set-up the devastating finale. The cast, consisting of first year YSD students making their Cabaret debuts, fully enters into their roles of spirited youths trapped in a low expectation school, facing yet another substitute teacher. Serena (Melanie Field) is a bit out of her element in trying to fill in for a recently departed biology teacher—Mrs. Brown—who called one student a sociopath and then fled. But Serena has her heart in the right place and is struggling to do right by her charmingly dysfunctional charges.
Idea is the most promising student, a dynamo of personality who strives to over-achieve. As her boyfriend Ruben (Julian Elijah Martinez) reminds us, over-achieving is easy in a school that asks for little more than busy work, and yet Serena still hopes to affect the students’ futures. Her tirade when Idea is arrested for a provoked assault that ends in the death of Dean Knowls grips us with the anger that Monte-Brown infuses into the speech. Serena’s boyfriend, a lawyer (Aubie Merrylees), injects a sense of legal practicality into the scene, which lets the question of violence and retribution hang unresolved. We eventually see the scene in which the predatory Dean (Merrylees), demanding the favors Idea once gave, meets with death; her act of violence is set-up by several stories in which Idea, the victim of domestic rape early in her life, flips out to the shock of her peers.
Idea’s justification is clear enough, and the enormity of her act is tragic. This is what overwhelms Serena and Ruben, and plunges the other students into despondency. The situation is almost too much for the play to bear, as most of the time it is a comical exploration of classroom types. As directed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the play is very indulgent toward its actors: several are given brief monologues to introduce themselves and provide commentary on the other characters, creating moments of confidence with the audience that do much to make the characters likeable—particularly Jonathan Majors as Kyle, and Shaunette Renée Wilson as Idea’s BFF Diandra, and, very memorably, as Grandma Rose.
More context for the lives of the students would be welcome, as, collectively, they seem to be school-bound personalities even willing to come to class on a Saturday. Teaching biology quickly goes out the window, and Serena has them enacting plays, at some length, and parsing poems, but it’s the lessons that take place between the students that are more interesting—such as the sweetly teen-aged coupling of Idea and Ruben—and Monte-Brown’s ear for the street lingo of her characters provides both amusement and the kinds of wise asides that keep these kids interesting.
Seth Bodie’s set—created wholly of schoolroom chairs—is both sculptural and imposing, effectively lit by Joey Moro to give the whole a sense of a claustrophobic maze these students might never escape from, unless, as with Idea, it is into even more dire incarceration. Fast-moving and played with feeling, The Defendant works hard in a brief compass to amuse, inform and anger its audience, and mostly succeeds.
The Defendant By Elia Monte-Brown Directed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer; Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Producer: Jabari Brisport; Set: Seth Bodie; Costumes: Montana Blanco; Sound: Tyler Kieffer; Lights: Joey Moro; Technical Director: Matt Groeneveld
Yale Cabaret January 23-25, 2014