theater review

In Exception to the Rule, Detention Is a Whole Other Class of Punishment

Exception to the Rule at the Roundabout’s Steinberg Center. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2022

If I hadn’t seen Dave Harris’s other play this season, Tambo & Bones at Playwrights Horizons, I might not have understood my response to his play at the Roundabout’s Black Box Theatre, Exception to the Rule. That’s not quite right either — Exception deliberately dwells in its ambiguities, so claiming to understand it is folly. But Tambo cracks open Exception in certain ways; it’s fortunate that the two plays are being produced so close together.

The elevator pitch for Exception to the Rule, at least, is clear: It’s The Breakfast Club meets No Exit. As five Black teenagers enter Room 111 to serve detention on a Friday afternoon — first romantic Tommy (Malik Childs) and glamorous Mikayla (Amandla Jahava), then Mikayla’s unkind ex-boyfriend Dayrin (Toney Goins), free spirit Dasani (Claudia Logan), and principled Abdul (Mister Fitzgerald) — we hear a stern voice on the intercom admonishing all students to behave in the halls. “There will be no school on Monday,” the voice says as the door slams behind them. “Have a safe weekend.” We haven’t been in Room 111 for more than a few minutes when we start to wonder whether the kids might be locked in, forgotten, serving detention permanently.

They’re all puzzled that the supervising teacher hasn’t shown up, but that discombobulates them less than the presence of a sixth student — Erika (MaYaa Boateng), or, as Abdul calls her, “college-bound Erika.” The others, all detention regulars, know her from her scholastic exploits, though she seems to have never met any of them. Exaggeratedly prudish, tugging nervously at her sleeves, and baffled by the rules — can they really not even go get something at the vending machine? — Erika is a fish in unfamiliar waters. But she’s also the sort of fish who wastes little time turning bossy with the other sea life. Dayrin has told Tommy about Mikayla’s sexual history (“a bad girl is a girl who sucks your … soul” says Tommy, still innocent), and in the middle of a boisterous fight about that, Erika objects.

I thought detention was quiet.

A place where everyone remembers the mistakes that got them here and then learns how to not make the same mistakes again.

And you leave different than when you came in.

Why else would they put you here?

The answer, of course, is the “they” and the “you” are not exactly what they seem. These teens are up against authority, the state, white supremacy, the system. Distortions over the intercom and increasingly terrifying sounds from the hallway make the school seem first like a prison, then like a glitching symbol for prison, a metaphor for the circular inner-city pipeline these teenagers have been trapped inside. Even well after the point it’s obvious they’ve been stranded, they’re too frightened of the consequences (a word repeated on the intercom in echoing tones) to do anything. Asking for help lands you in detention; showing anger lands you in detention; needing food lands you in detention; expressing sexuality lands you in detention. Being in detention lands you in detention. Only Erika — for reasons she will shout at Dayrin at the end of the play — has the option of escape, and to do it, she must choose to turn her back on the others and, as Dayrin says, forget them.

The production, designed by Reid Thompson and Kamil James, is a cage within a cage. The cramped basement-level Black Box is already an intimidating space; I’m sure it has exits (Roundabout is very up to date on fire code), but it feels like a trap. A glowing outline of a box surrounds Room 111, which is otherwise rendered realistically, and the small audience surrounds the playing area on three sides. We’re therefore only feet from the actors, and director Miranda Haymon has them perform in a heightened style, which brings them even closer. The audience forms a ring of compression around the students. Our laughter surges when they insult one another (Harris has a precise touch with put-downs), which seems to spur their rivalry — which prevents their solidarity. If they get out of that monstrous schoolroom, they’ll still have to deal with us.

Tambo & Bones, a three-act play in which Harris leapfrogs from 19th-century minstrelsy to present-day stadium-rap culture to a future without whiteness, is by far the more complex play, but it, too, considers audience laughter and the way it reifies racial categories. In Tambo, Harris set up comic punch lines to rebound on the person laughing; here, he’s more interested in the way making a joke affects the intraplay dynamics between the characters. How does Dayrin’s casual misogyny (which might just be for the lolz) pivot into truth-telling, and why should he be the one who sees Erika most accurately? Cruel, funny, clear-eyed Dayrin contains the most interesting contradictions of the play, and Goins gives him the most delicate performance. The others play big, but he has a well-honed gift for shading each instant, for making minuscule shifts inside something noisy and splashy. The others, though, have more trouble toggling between playing broad — Erika pogo-sticks around like a freaked-out Looney Toons rabbit when she thinks she’s got pot smoke in her hair — and their characters’ more vulnerable moments.

The play lasts around 90 minutes, but it still only feels like the beginning of something — it ends on an interrogative uplift, which leaves vague what could be sharp. And that’s where Tambo & Bones lends a hand in understanding. In that tripartite play, Harris sets up provocations (in Act One, the minstrels murder the playwright in effigy, for example), and then, instead of answering his own questions about commodified and internalized racism, poses them anew in the second act, then again in the third. There are questions in Exception to the Rule, too, Foucauldian ones about communities’ learning to police themselves, but we never feel the full force of Harris’s analysis coming to bear because he asks them only once. A late-play development suggests that Erika, the “exception” of the title, might even become the rule, bringing in a rueful, angry thought about the insidious nature of American power. There are second and third questions implied by Exception, most of them posed by Dayrin, but the play never gets around to them. Erika and Dayrin have their fight, and she leaves. Oh, how I wanted her to come back. What I learned from Tambo & Bones is that Harris only gets better when he puts his characters back in the ring for round two.

Exception to the Rule is at the Roundabout’s Steinberg Center for Theatre through June 26.

In Exception to the Rule, a Detention That May Never End