This exceptional summer theater season in the Berkshires keeps getting better and better. Just when you think you’ve seen the best play you’ll see all summer, another production comes along and blows you away.
Such is the case with ABCD, an astonishingly good play having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage. It’s the first produced work by May Treuhaft-Ali, who—at just 26 years old—has proven herself a confident, incisive voice to be reckoned with, a formidable story teller, and wise beyond her years.
The play was inspired by a spate of high school cheating scandals that garnered national media attention in the last decade. It’s set in a nameless metropolis in 2006, after the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 under the George W. Bush Administration. It’s a tale of two city schools damaged in very different ways by this legislation. That might sound didactic, but ABCD is anything but; it’s bursting with relatable, affecting human stories.
The opening scene is a blur of school activity; kid and teachers bustling through a hallway lined with multicolored lockers, the backbone of a clever, versatile set designed by Baron E.Pugh, which rotates and transforms to become classrooms in the two schools, a city bus, a living room, and other locations.
Davon Lawrence (played by Brandon St. Clair) teaches math at Carnegie Middle School, his alma mater, a failing public school in a low-income, inner-city community serving mostly Black and Latinx students. His boss, Principal Ellis (Melvin Abston), was his basketball coach. Davon is dating a novice teacher, Tamara Gardner (Torée Alexandre), and both are passionate about teaching; it’s their calling. He also works with Mika Ramos (Maribel Martinez), who had been his teacher.
Meanwhile, at prestigious Columbus Preparatory High School, a magnet school with a majority White and Asian student body, Bilal (Justin Ahdoot) is focused on eking every bit of credit out of his physics lab to get his grades high enough to gain acceptance to Harvard. He’s not worried about gaining acceptance from his classmates; in fact, he’s resigned to his low position in the school’s social hierarchy. As a first-generation Iraqi-American and a practicing Muslim in the post 9/11 era, he realizes the other kids are suspicious of him; they mock him for wearing a thobe—a traditional garment which they call a “Muslim dress”—every Friday, mostly out of respect for his father, Ibrahim (Juri Henley-Cohn). Ibrahim has sacrificed much to come to America, abandoning his own academic career so that Bilal can achieve the American dream.
The play is skillfully plotted and moves briskly through the two main storylines, which revolve around cheating on standardized tests at both schools. At Carnegie, the faculty faces pressure to cheat so they can gain funding for the school to provide better resources for its underserved students—and to keep it from being shut down for poor performance. At Columbus Prep, the students cheat to get into the best colleges. The two storylines intertwine as Bilal arrives at Carnegie to tutor a group of students in math—motivated by the chance to earn extra credit for community service—supervised by Davon
This is a high-energy production, 94 minutes packed with moral quandaries, good intentions gone awry, manipulation, ambition, and dashed dreams. It addresses myriad social issues, including public school funding, the drawbacks of standardized testing, immigration, cultural identity, racism, privilege, and the pressures of popularity and academic achievement in high school. Playwright Treuhaft-Ali deftly captures perspectives from various points of view with taut, realistic dialogue and nary a false step.
Director Daniel J. Bryant adeptly keeps the action moving with many conceptual balls in the air. Dramatic lighting design by Jason Lynch and sound design by Fabian Obispo make solid contributions to this production’s success. Distinctive movement also plays a key role in the staging; intimacy choreographer and fight director Jacqueline Holloway, dance captain Melvin Abston, and fight captain Chavez Ravine (the latter two doing double duty as members of the cast) all deserve recognition for sterling work.
In addition to compelling work by the lead actors, the supporting characters are finely wrought by an exceptional ensemble cast. Henley-Cohn nearly breaks your heart as Ibrahim in his scene with Bilal’s physics teacher, Joanna Kreuger, who in turn is stunningly played by Chavez Ravine, portraying both isolation and fortitude as the sole Black faculty member at Columbus Prep. Pearl Shin shines as hyperkintic Sunghee, a Korean-American trying to stay in with the in-crowd; she has you second-guessing Sunghee’s motivations for befriending Bilal and drawing him into a scandal. Torée Alexandre positively glows with hope as Tamara, believing she has had an outsized impact on her students’ test results and relishing her relationship with Davon, who shares her devotion to helping underprivileged kids learn and have the chance for a better future.
Barrington Stage Company earns high marks for bringing Treuhaft-Ali’s work to life in this stunning debut of ABCD, which deserves to find a large, appreciative audience. I’m certain the play will have a life beyond this Berkshire production, and I’m sure we’ll see more from this young, startling playwright. I, for one, will be watching, waiting, and looking forward to it.
Barrington Stage Company’s world premiere production of ABCD runs through July 23 on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. All photos by Daniel Rader.