Review: In Fish, Kia Corthron Pulls Back the Curtain on the New York City Public School System

Keen Company and Working Theater present this new drama about a teacher and her student.

Torée Alexandre and Rachel Leslie star in Kia Corthron’s Fish, directed by Adrienne D. Williams, for Keen Company at Theatre Row.
(© Valerie Terranova Photography)

Teaching is not easy. Teaching in a New York City public school, though, comes with a whole host of unique challenges, from limited resources and underpay to students who have endlessly complicated lives. Kia Corthron’s new play, Fish, a Keen Company and Working Theater coproduction at Theater Row, tackles both sides of this struggle, offering us both the teacher and student perspectives. The play explores the fraught relationship between Latricia, aka Tree, (Torée Alexandre) and her English teacher, Ms. Jasmine Harris (Rachel Leslie). Both rail against the school and the wider system that seemingly sets them both up to fail.

We first meet the pair when Ms. Harris attempts to discipline Tree after she was late to class, disrespectful, and wrote an expletive across the windows. We quickly learn the logistical impossibilities for both when Ms. Harris tries to give Tree an after-school detention. Tree explains that she has to pick up her brother (Josiah Gaffney) after school every day, since neither of their parents are around (Dad is never mentioned, we later learn Mom is incarcerated).

Ms. Harris instead assigns a book report on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but Tree doesn’t have a hardcopy or technology at home, the school has no library due to budget cuts, and Tree has no time to go to a local library. Ms. Harris has a copy Tree can read while in school (she won’t loan it to her), but even that doesn’t fit in with Tree’s schedule.

Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Torée Alexandre, Morgan Siobhan Green, and Margaret Odette appear in Kia Corthron’s Fish, directed by Adrienne D. Williams, for Keen Company at Theatre Row.
(© Valerie Terranova Photography)

It’s quite the impasse, and Corthron does an excellent job letting the two volley back and forth as the audience realizes the difficulty of their situations. Cothron highlights myriad issues of the New York City public school system, which often lurk at the intersection of elitism and racism. Among these are the under-trained Teach for America instructors, the unfairness of the charter school system, the devastating impacts of budget cuts (where everything from art classes to librarians to school nurses get cut), and the undue pressure of standardized testing, which can determine funding and teachers’ bonuses.

These problems get examined from a variety of lenses. Ms. Harris commiserates with a fellow educator (Morgan Siobhan Green) in the dilapidated teachers’ lounge as they rant about the charter school which took over the top floor of their building and has almost endless resources. The visual metaphor of the heavenly top-floor and the lowly public school becomes abundantly clear when Tree’s friend LaRonda (Mikayla LaShae Batholomew) gets sent back down to the lower floors, becomes pregnant, and eventually drops out of school altogether.

Across the board, the cast is quite strong. Alexandre’s ferocity, Leslie’s passion, and Batholomew’s playful pathos all carry the play, and their performances are supported by an ensemble who cover a wide array of characters, including students, teachers, and coworkers. Jason Simms’s set design is similarly flexible, featuring flickering lights, stained walls, and linoleum floors that transition from classroom to apartments with ease.

Rachel Leslie and Morgan Siobhan Green appear in Kia Corthron’s Fish, directed by Adrienne D. Williams, for Keen Company at Theatre Row.
(© Valerie Terranova Photography)

The play’s major weakness, though, is its tendency to get preachy, often through long monologues, clunky exposition, and some very heavy-handed sections of dialogue. While director Adrienne D. Williams handles the comedy and pain quite well, the emphasis given to these more didactic, soapbox moments can make it feel like, ironically enough, an after school special. When Fish reaches its conclusion, Corthron attempts too much, incorporating gun violence in schools in a way that has nothing to do with the plot.

That said, there are many crucial takeaways to be learned. Chief among these is the point that public schools are not all created equal or facing the same challenges. A “public school education” should not be thought of as something standardized or equivalent. It’s a simple but radical critique. Some public schools, especially those in major cities, need more funding and resources than those in affluent suburbs. In places like New York City, the public school system is too often unworkable for both students and teachers, and it is in desperate need of change and reform. While Fish may at times underline its messaging too much, it is teaching us vital lessons, and we all clearly have a lot to learn.


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Closed: April 20, 2024