I had seen ads for Stage Left Theatre's and Theatre Seven of Chicago's world premiere of "Principal Principle" in the spring, but did not really note it on my radar until it was announced that the companies were offering a remount of a month's worth of performances over the summer. (The original run ended May 18). I rarely see plays merit this kind of attention, and so I decided to take advantage of this rarity and finally see the show. I'm glad that I did, because "Principal Principle" is a fine example of Chicago theatre at its best, with strong acting and direction, timely subject matter, and satirical wit.
Set in the crowded offices of the English department of Chicago's Chinua Achebe Academy High School, we met Kay (Cassy Sanders), an eager new teacher on her first day. Kay quit her corporate job for an accelerated eight-week training session in teaching, and is all smiles and barely bridled enthusiasm as she introduces herself to her fellow English teachers: the veteran Denise (Barbara Roeder Harris), eager now only for her upcoming retirement, along with the cynical Shelley (McKenzie Chinn) and tired department head Ola (Elana Elyce). Kay is taken aback to find her enthusiasm met with disdain; these teachers have seen her type before, you see, and they are not impressed. Nevertheless, Kay has every intention of embracing her new role and upholding the high standard of Achebe High.
At the first meeting of the year, Principal Banerjee (Arya Daire) attempts to give a rousing "go get 'em" style speech to rally the teachers, which is met with nothing more than yawns and eye rolls (save for the oh-so-serious note-taking Kay). The teachers start to listen, however, when Ms. Banerjee informs them of new standardized curriculum that all the teachers will have to adhere to. Specific books are listed as necessary, regardless of teachers' opinions, and there is to be rigorous testing given to the students to gauge their progress. Favorable test scores will be rewarded with a new copy machine (so needed by our English teachers) or copy paper; poor scores will open the department in question to discipline.
Kay decides to embrace the new curriculum at first, must to the chagrin of Shelley, who points out the cultural bias this curriculum illustrates. Achebe High is 95 percent African-American, and yet there are next to no black writers whose notable works made the curriculum's cut. They are, however, required to read a quintessential American classic that is riddled with archaic use of the N-word. How does this affect the students' desire for learning, and what of the works of Douglas, Morrison, Wright, and others to whom these students might better relate?
Concurrently, all teachers must undergo evaluation, and Kay is recruited by Ms. Banerjee to take part in the "Instructional Leadership Team," seemingly designed to offer Kay a forum for growth but in application will serve to undercut veteran teachers' authority. The latest evaluations give our veteran Denise a lower score than she has ever received, leading to speculation that her retirement pension is under attack.
The importance of tenure and the precariousness of employment comes up, causing Kay to become disillusioned with her new career. Shelly, pushing aside the forced curriculum, rouses Kay into a declaration of revolution. They will take their own agendas to their students, and tenure and test score be damned. But soon, Shelly offers Kay an opportunity to filter test scores using their agenda, and does this make them true revolutionaries or merely cheats? And how does any of this prepare young people to achieve in the world?
"Principal Principle" was written by Chicago playwright Joe Zarrow, who worked as an English teacher with the Chicago Public Schools. His work is insightful, witty, and very real, pulling the audience into the story with its humor and engaging them with its relevance. The actors, led by director Scott Bishop, are all excellent in their respective roles. It is so refreshing to see five women on stage with compelling stories and dialogue that center around their lives and desires, and that are not mere fodder for the male-oriented interests that so saturate popular entertainment.
In its original run, "Principal Principle" became a best-selling show for Stage Left and Theatre Seven, and rightly so. We live in the time of "No Child Left Behind," and the Chicago Public School strike of 2012 certainly brought the condition of our city's system to wider attention. Stage Left and Theatre Seven have brought a true gem to Chicago theatre audiences and with it not only an evening of entertainment, but a platform on which ideas and information can be brought out for discussion and, hopefully, action.
"Principal Principle" runs through August 17 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago. For information or tickets, call 773-975-8150 or visit www.theatrewit.org