Bronx Theatre High School, a Roundabout partner school, hosts an after school program for female-identifying students called The Black Pearls. Led by Principal Shoundel McIntosh, this program identifies students with potential for growth as individuals and in community and offers them structured workshops intended to build confidence and pride in one’s identity.
Karishma Bhagani, former Education Apprentice at Roundabout Theatre Company, and Paul Brewster McGinley, Roundabout’s Director of Teaching and Learning, visited one of the Black Pearls sessions in March 2020. The students read Exception to the Rule and then engaged in a discussion about the piece. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:
PAUL BREWSTER MCGINLEY: What was your first reaction to this play? What resonated as truth?
DESTINY: I loved it. I could really see this happening actually. I wasn’t bored, I was engaged. We were laughing. There were comedic and serious scenes, and I loved it. The students stuck in detention and all this stuff about dating and talking to your boys about the stuff you talk about and having expectations of other people that you wouldn’t usually expect.
YESENIA: It wasn’t so properly annotated. It’s language that we speak – how we talk. So it also relates a lot more because we feel comfortable with it.
DESTINY: Looking at the play, usually you see a play about adults, but actually seeing this play about African-American teenagers all in one room and how they react to each other is different than what you normally see on a stage. I think Dave [Harris, the playwright] was very good at showing how other teenagers react to each other.
BINTU: I liked the play from the beginning, because it’s how high school kids talk. I liked that it was an African-American play because usually our childhood stories are based on white children. So it’s nice to see something based on how we live and come to school. It’s our life – and a situation that would happen in our life.
SAMANTHA: The first thing that stood out to me was the characters. It said “Black high schooler”. I’ve never seen a script that had every character that was Black. What if he put them stuck in the classroom to show how society is stuck in the same place?
PBM: What did the title mean to you?
MARIAH: It speaks into the piece itself.
VALENCIA: I really liked the title. I understand Exception to the Rule. Dayrin was explaining to Erika how she is Black, and that’s because he thinks she acts so white. She was so proper with the way she carries herself, except for the reason she got detention. I guess the Exception to the Rule suggests that just because you’re Black, doesn’t mean you have to act a certain way to portray yourself.
MS. MCINTOSH: This idea of acting white – who says if you are a Black woman that speaks proper English that means that you are acting white? What does that mean to you? Is it wrong for a Black person to be this way?
DESTINY: It’s not wrong, because why would it be wrong for someone to speak correct English? Say if you go to an interview – would you get that job if you spoke as if you were out with your friends on the street? That’s a question you need to ask yourself, too. Not just about if that person is talking. Just how there are stereotypes about Black people, there are stereotypes about white people, too. White people are on a high pedestal because they talk or wear things in a proper way – that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily acting white, you’re just doing what you are doing.
JACKIE: You’re not necessarily supposed to talk proper. English is English, as long as the other person understands what you’re saying. I always have a question in my head that I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now. Do they expect us to speak ratchet ghetto, or with educated full sentences, and why? Some people will think of it as “ghetto” or “ratchet” because that is usually what people think of when they see Black people. They think “loud” when they see Black women.
YESENIA: That’s another thing I wanted to speak on. I remember a topic we had discussed with how people say something about “angry Black women”. I felt like a lot of people at the end of the day are just closed-minded, so they don’t really understand certain things. Something that can happen for them doesn’t necessarily happen in the same way for us. It’s okay for a white woman to be angry and yell and share her opinion, but if we do it, it’s a different story because we are louder or more intimidating. I guess they find us more intimidating in some way.
It’s a really difficult topic to deal with and there’s so much into it, and there’s so much that’s been passed down over time. It’s like a giant game of telephone. When [the other characters] say [to Erika], “Why are you acting white?” I don’t think it’s much about insinuating that someone is acting white per se. I think it’s more of an inside joke, meaning that you are doing something that white people would do. I think that’s what they mean, it’s more of a giant inside joke.
DESTINY: There could be experiences where you were going to say something but you can’t because you would get that label on your back or you would get talked about. And then you are just an angry Black woman. But no. I am angry. I am Black. And I am a woman. All three of those don’t have to go together. I can be angry, anyone else can be angry – but why do I have to be an angry Black woman?
KARISHMA BHAGANI: Can we talk about how Erika is subject to stereotypes from within her own community?
VALENCIA: She is stepping out of the zone. She is stepping out of the comfort zone of Black people and she is walking towards the comfort zone of white people. Acting Black, acting white, that’s what that means.
DESTINY: For Erika, she didn’t even speak up about it but we can tell that she didn’t like when they put the labels on her because everybody was trying to be sweet to her, and it was making her feel uncomfortable. When you have somebody that starts “acting white”, it’s a big game of how we play around with each other, but you never know if somebody does that for a reason. I feel like Erika was portrayed very clearly for that reason.
SAMANTHA: The story shows how society is. The other students didn’t know Erika, but they see her around the school so they assume that she is a goody. They already put that label on her back without even knowing her. And that’s exactly what society does with Black women and Black people in general.
PBM: Did the play teach you something?
SAMANTHA: Yeah. It teaches you not to judge somebody based on the way they act or come across. You don’t know someone until you know someone.
CHELSEA: I found the plot really interesting as well because of the fact that it’s not anything specific – it’s about how Black people see each other and they’re supposed to act a certain way. That Black people have certain stereotypes for who they are. So when Erica enters, I felt like she was raised by white people, but it was really fun to see a Black young lady try to act different and how other Black people react to it in the play.
VALENCIA: I don’t think she was trying to act different; I think that’s just the way she is. She’s a person that is studious, and maybe because she’s Black, she’s trying to be white. She was being herself, she didn’t care what others thought, she spoke her mind, as she should.
SAMANTHA: We don’t know her background, but everybody who tries to teach someone something – maybe she’s been through things, and she changed her outlook on life and tried to better herself in a way. When she was talking to Abdul, she was telling him that he doesn’t have to act the way he was acting.
JACKELINE: I could understand what Valencia was saying because a lot of kids nowadays especially colored people go through a lot, and people don’t realize it. We do have problems at home, we do have problems at work and we try not to bring that in school. Maybe she is acting this way academically, so she can achieve in life, so she doesn’t have to subject herself to stereotypes of Black young women. She wants to fit in or make something of herself – go to Yale, Harvard, NYU. She doesn’t want to be an ordinary Black woman. She wants to be a doctor, or a lawyer, and have her name up there.
ONE WORD DESCRIPTIONS
PBM: In just one word, what do you want audiences to know about your experience reading the play?