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FAIRFIELD delights and challenges beliefs at CPH

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Cleveland Heights School Board member, Eric Coble, has an inside track on understanding the way schools work.   In his play, FAIRFIELD, he starts with the premise of an elementary school whose motto is, “Peace.  Love.  Respect for all.”  And then asks,  “What could possibly go wrong?”

Fairfield Elementary, a public school located in a liberal suburb (locally, think Solon or Beachwood) has everything going for it.  Parent participation, a diverse student body, a new African American principal with a reputation for creative leadership, and a Superintendent who encourages faculty involvement.  Add to that mix a dynamic new teacher who is full of ideas, is enthusiastic, and has a vivid imagination.

It’s February, it’s Black History month.  A time to teach respect for all.  As it turns out, Coble remind us, all the best laid plans can go astray!

Angela Wadley, the principal, in an attempt to provide an understanding of the plight of African Americans, invites an aged former member of the Black Panthers to speak at a student assembly.  He takes this opportunity to go off on a tirade, which includes advising the students to “rise up and kill the ‘honkies’.”

New teacher, Laurie Kaminski, sends home a spelling list with words such as “chitlins,” “watermelon,” “bootie,” and “fried chicken.” She divides the class into slaves and slaveholders and has the students role play.  One of the white boys puts together a chain of paper clips and in his role as “slave holder” proceeds to whip a black student.  Her idea of having a CelebrEthnic backfires as parents are up in arms over the food, the games, and the costumes.

Oh, yes, lots can go wrong and does.

The CPH production, under the direction of Artistic Director  Laura Kepley, is nothing short of wonderful.  The comic timing is perfect, the staging creative, the character development spot on.

Nedra McClyde makes Principal Angela Wadley into a model of the African American woman who has broken the glass ceiling by being efficient, organized and well meaning.  Her fine education is emphasized by her use of much “edu-speak.”  Phrases such as “stake holders,” “evidenced based data,” and “outside the box” sound nice, but don’t translate into meaningful actions.

Crystal Finn is hilarious as the well-meaning liberal Jewish teacher who has no understanding of the potential outcomes of her actions, and again and again puts her proverbial foot in her mouth.

Brian Sills nicely develops both his role as Scott Flemingsen, the father of the slave holder boy, and up-tight Superintendent Snyder.

Leenya Rideout (Molly Fleming) and Marinda Anderson (Vanessa Stubbs) as mothers develop clear and consistent characterizations.

Bjorn DuPaty practically steals the show with his portrayal of former Black Panther, Charles Clark.  His long monologue about race relations, which turns into a tirade, provoked not only extended laughter but concluded to thunderous applause. (One can only wonder whether it was for what he said, or his performance.)

I was fortunate enough to be sitting directly opposite the playwright during the production.  He was obviously pleased as the audience roared with laughter as the play proceeded.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Filled with edu-speak, sexual innuendos, derogatory terms, mild violence, frank conversations about race, and clever lines, the script is a laugh riotThe production milks every possible laugh from Eric Coble’s premise and writing. Because of the Outcalt’s thrust seating, the action was up close to each audience member, added to the high level emotional impact.  FAIRFIELD is a production absolutely not to be missed and makes a wonderful curtain-raiser for the NEW. THEATRE. FESTIVAL.

FAIRFIELD runs through May 31 2015, at the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Theatre complex at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to