Circle UP! teaches about education inequality

February 9, 2018

As part of ’DEIS Impact, the Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation Program (CAST) brought youth Boston theater group “Youth Underground” to Brandeis on Monday, Feb. 5, to perform “Circle UP!,” a show about inequality in the American school system.

An underappreciated part of ’DEIS Impact, “Circle UP!” follows nine members of an improv group as they perform single-scene skits about teachers’ and students’ experiences dealing with diversity in school. The play, created by Betsy Bard, is drawn directly from interviews about the achievement gap conducted in urban high schools. As such, it offers impressive insight into the forces behind the achievement gap.

The disparity in test scores between generally higher scoring white and Asian-American students and generally lower scoring black and Hispanic students, is the focus of the show, a fact it points out by featuring a reporter character who occasionally monologues about the details of the problem. This disparity is an impressively large problem, having survived the millions of dollars and work-hours thrown at it, and as a result there are many theories about its cause. But with its experience-focused approach “Circle UP!” largely skirts these theories in order to directly introduce its audience to the concrete details.

This more personal approach was reinforced by the structure of the skits; each was led by an actor narrating, using interviewees’ descriptions of their experiences to set the scene, under the premise that the actors are in an improv class performing the scenes as part of their exercises. As the show goes on, you are exposed to more perspectives, giving you a clearer view of the competing forces at play in schools.

A series of scenes about the gulf between advanced and basic classes ­­­­­introduced the concept that expectations of success, and failure, can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Another scene, with a student who had to spend most of her day helping her family, introduced the concept that some students may not have as much time to spend on schoolwork as others.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of these skits made clear the difficulty of reconciling these perspectives. A pair of skits, one from a teacher’s perspective about how she singled out minority students in her advanced class for help, and one from the student’s perspective about his resentment towards the teacher for singling him out, showed how even the best intentions can lead to problems.

The performers, led by director Vincent Ernest Siders, portrayed these scenarios with impressive skill. Each character was shown with a realism which (mostly) prevented the show from feeling like a cheesy diversity handout with profiles of people that start “My name is __ and my problem with my school is…” The performances were also impressive in the way they created scenes sans any set pieces. Through simple blocking and basic pantomime the actors managed to communicate setting clearly without straying into excessive mime-ery or causing confusion. Stand-out performances came from Trinidad Ramkissoon who portrayed a student struggling to be accepted for her gender identity with a touching authenticity, and Zay Pearson who was excellent at both humorously roasting his classmates and angrily voicing his resentments.

The narrative style of the show did, however, make the show seem stilted and on-the-nose at times. This was compounded by the fact that the skits were only broken up by the reporter’s grim monologuing and improv games likely unrecognizable to those without theater experience. As a result, many of the more similar skits bled together and became a tad tedious.

Despite these imperfections, “Circle UP!” serves a testament to the power of theater to introduce and start conversations about our society, as well as the power of youth to create impressive theater. The concepts introduced by the show, such as the gap between teachers and their students of color, permeate and define the achievement gap. Seeing them made real on stage helps us understand them and hopefully start a dialogue on how to solve them. The beginnings of this conversation actually came about directly after the show in a talkback conducted with the full creative team behind the show, where the audience and artists came together to discuss the creative process, and hopeful solutions to alleviate some of the issues.

The group which created the show, Youth Underground, is a program at Central Square Theater which brings together young actors to investigate and create art around social issues relevant to them. “CircleUP!” is created by the Youth Underground Ambassadors, a group of actors between 19-25, and is an example of the powerful theater created by letting young adults perform work about issues relevant to them.

Menu Title