An eager student gets more than she bargained for when she takes on an unusual assignment in the new play Class Act, by Rich Rubin, a Rising Sage Theatre production on stage at the West End Performing Arts Center through September 19.
Kai (Brittany Inge) is a conscientious student at a prestigious East Coast university, and her sociology professor Rebecca (Judith Beasley) wants Kai and the other students to think deeply and viscerally about the sorts of issues they’ve been discussing in class in a purely academic way.
The professor asks the normally reserved Kai to play the role of a streetwise prostitute one day in class, and Kai ends up taking on the assignment with unexpected gusto. The ripple effects of her performance result in controversy both on and off campus
Rubin is a Portland-based playwright, and Class Act was found through a nationwide contest held by the new Atlanta theatre company Rising Sage, co-founded by playwright, artistic director and ArtsATL “30 under 30” artist Paris Crayton III.
What’s best about Rubin’s play is the way the playwright dives right into the heart of contemporary issues from the get-go. At the heart of Kai’s impersonation and the resulting controversy are today’s most hot-button topics: race, class, sex, feminism, academic freedom. Inge as Kai does a fantastic job shuttling between what is basically two roles, making both her upright student and also the plain-spoken prostitute believable.
But I had a problem with the play in that I never found the professor’s assignment believable. The professor’s motivation for the strange exercise seems murky; the whole experiment is so unusual and appears to have no specific, recognizable goal, one that’s convincingly academic and one that makes us understand why Kai agrees to take it on.
We can let things go through a willing suspension of disbelief for a while, but the impersonation is so central to the story that its strange and unconvincing aspects start to loom large. We watch the professor needle and cajole Kai into the role, and they’re interesting scenes. But the central conceit — that it’s part of a class — is never really convincing.
Some of the problem may be that we know so little about the character of Rebecca, the professor. We don’t hear much about her or her personal life, so we’re left to guess about her motivations related to the experiment. (She clearly enjoys the resulting large-scale controversy, but it doesn’t seem she knew that would happen when she set out the exercise).
And strangely, we often don’t see the controversy itself played out as drama. The objections of other students are introduced to us in a series of anonymous emails read aloud by the professor. Kai’s friend Amir (excellently played by Gemayel Thompson) ends up primarily as an observer and commenter on the situation, and it’s clear her roommate Olivia (Audra Pagano) is shallow and snobbish from the first scene, so her subsequent judgment and betrayal come as no surprise or revelation in the end.
Terrell Johnson as Kai’s boyfriend Trent conveys the character’s strong reactions well, but this interesting character only appears in a couple short scenes, and strangely, he never interacts much with anyone other than Kai. In fact, the characters’ various realms remain relatively static, and the story’s people are seldom brought together in provocative or unexpected groupings.
Still, the play is admirable for the way it shows how easily politics and identity can ignite when there are so many tensions, prejudices and strong emotions waiting to bubble up from just beneath the surface. It may not hit all the notes perfectly, but Class Act is ultimately a class act, demonstrating the new theater group’s commitment to contemporary work that’s unafraid to tackle the thorniest contemporary issues.