WASHINGTON -- At the same time that Andrew Rossi’s documentary "Ivory Tower" – a castigation of college’s rising costs – graces movie screens, several actors are using the medium of theater to reflect on what college means.
Two plays that premiered last week at Washington’s Capital Fringe Festival – a performing arts festival that features more than two weeks of shows – consider students who often go unnoticed. Eric Jaffe’s one-man show C-, based on interviews with 65 of Jaffe’s fraternity brothers from the University of Maryland at College Park, is a meditation on how people who aren’t straight-A students (to put it mildly) make their way through college. And Ronna Levy’s solo show This Gonna Be on the Test, Miss? draws attention to the experiences of community college students.
Jaffe and his fraternity brothers are, by now, nearly 25 years removed from their alcohol-fueled hijinks at Maryland in the late 1980s. Yet Jaffe, seated onstage wearing a polo shirt and a baseball cap, could still pass for a college student if the light were sufficiently dim. A software engineer, Jaffe spent several years interviewing 65 of his fraternity brothers, quizzing them on how they spent college and where they ended up. In his show, which premiered Thursday, he channels his friends – distinguishing between his white male characters by means of outfit changes and regional accents.
Jaffe recounts a number of amusing – and vulgar – memories. One of his characters discusses an egg-eating contest inspired by the film "Cool Hand Luke." Another brags: “One time I fit 144 Smarties in my mouth at the same time.”
A streak of solemnity, though, underlies the show’s playful tone. His pot-smoking fraternity brothers, on the whole, slummed their way through college, choosing classes based on what was easiest and what had the most favorable gender ratio. One character, nicknamed “Mules,” urges the others to sign up for elementary education: “It’s going to be all chicks.” College is lost on these students, Jaffe’s play suggests. But hemmed in on all sides by social and family pressures, they had no alternative apart from languishing in an institution that doesn’t resonate with them.
“College felt like a tremendous opportunity that I couldn’t grab onto,” Jaffe said in an interview. “For some people it’s a waste of time. There should be another option.”
Liberal arts education gets rough treatment in the play. One character who majored in political science with a focus on Russia declares: “My major became irrelevant when the Berlin Wall came down.”
Jaffe said he majored in computer science, but hated it.
Of the 65 people he interviewed, 15 did technical majors and went into technical fields, six dropped out, and eight went into family businesses after graduating. Of the 36 who majored in liberal arts, 25 became lawyers or salesmen.
"The liberal arts weren't impactful for them," Jaffe said.
Challenging a Myth
Levy’s show, This Gonna Be on the Test, Miss?, begins with a question: “So you’re all here for English 92, right?”
This convention, of addressing the audience as if it were a class, continues throughout the show, which premiered Friday.
Levy, who teaches English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, takes aim what she calls a “myth” prevalent on community college campuses: the idea that “your associate degree is going to get you a great career.” The performer, who has taught community college English since 1994, said her students have big dreams. But they tend not to have the resources needed to achieve them. Walking into Levy’s class underprepared and overwhelmed by chaotic lives, most leave community college without a degree.
Once an aspiring actress, Levy moved to Los Angeles with the hope of launching a career in film and television. While waitressing and auditioning for roles, she found herself teaching Basic Sentence Writing and Paragraph Building at a Los Angeles community college.
What started as a temporary gig turned out to be a vocation.
Artifacts Levy collected from 20 years of teaching – letters from students, transcripts from TV auditions – gave punch to the show. One letter from a student starts: “Ronna, when I first met you, I thought you were a snobby white bitch.”
The show chronicles Levy’s transformation into a teacher and assesses the ways in which community college classrooms have changed during her career.
The stakes are higher, and students are more disengaged than ever, Levy declared in the show. “We have fed our students a steady diet of false self-esteem,” she said. “A lot of our students don’t belong in college. But everyone thinks college is the only way to go.”
Levy said in an interview that her show sought to bring attention to “a population that is virtually voiceless, and a venue that is invisible.”
“People don’t understand who I teach when I talk about it,” Levy said. “If you don’t know anyone in an urban community college, and you live in suburbia, you have no clue.”
Several teachers were in the audience for Levy’s premiere. Kevin Menard, who teaches high school in northern Virginia, said the show accurately reflected the tribulations of teaching underprivileged students.
“Every one of the experiences – the good and the bad – I’ve gone through,” Menard said.