‘What’s Best for the Children’ Tackles Who has the Right to Rewrite History

When Theatre Lab’s producing artistic director Matt Stabile bounds onto the stage, it’s to let us know a lot more than to “silence our cellphones.” The professional resident company of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) that specializes in presenting new work (25 full productions, including 12 world premieres!) is culminating its ninth season with yet another hyper-topical world premiere: WHAT’S BEST FOR THE CHILDREN by Idris Goodwin.

As most of you probably know by now, given the frequent headlines, education and what teachers can and cannot teach, or even talk about with their students, has become a polarizing, hot-button issue in our country and especially – given all the latest edicts by our governor – in our state. The question of who decides what and how to transfer knowledge to the next generation has never been easy. But it seems like, in the past, there was more common acceptance of what constituted a basic curriculum, along with respect for educators and local schools. 

In contrast, nowadays, new insights into history, brain science, and changing world dynamics often clash with traditional religious dogma and conservative political views. Leading to contentious school board meetings, disaffected parents, and frustrated or checked-out kids. Basic common core standards, and students, tend to suffer the most. Playwright Idris Goodwin – whose bio cites his current position as artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theater and board president of Theater for Young Audiences/USA and original content creator for Nickelodeon – is obviously involved with today’s youth and a prolific writer/producer for inter-generational audiences. 

The 1887 class lineup – where students should be seen but not heard. From left: Pamela S. Hankerson, Jason Peck, Sarah Romeo, Elizabeth Price, Seth Trucks. Morgan Sophia Photography.

Goodwin’s play, “What’s Best for the Children,” is hip (including actual hip-hop musical performances), a little interactive (you’re handed an Audience Pop Quiz sheet as you enter, and pay attention because there will be pop quizzes!), humorous but scary – like a canary in a coalmine warning about where our society is headed. 

Goodwin’s play is also, entertainingly, educational! Like when we first meet a row of students (with men in suits and women in short-pleated skirts – all playing kids) with hush fingers over their lips as “School Rules of 1887” are recited. Like: “Do not call classmates names like scalawag.”  “Students must sweep and dust the classroom.” And “bring firewood inside for the furnace.”

We then leap to the present where an incompetent PBS-affiliate interviewer who’d been laid off after many years with his reliable, but now out-of-date camera, is newly assigned to shoot interviews using a video system he can’t seem to master. The object of Doug’s (Seth Trucks) news feature – and star of our show – is Whit Forsyth (Isaac Simmons), the first Black chairman of the State School Board Committee. Doug’s initial questions reflect typical prejudicial assumptions that, based on the color of Whit’s skin, he’ll be promoting a liberal agenda.  

Perhaps it’s a good thing that this bumbling interviewer can’t get his recorder working properly and needs to return later … and so ends up rescuing the new board chairman who’d been abducted (and thrown back) a ridiculous-sounding three times in one day by constituents intent on influencing his vote on various items at an upcoming school board meeting. Can it happen here? What a question! We live in Florida, home of “Florida Man” – where anything, no matter how outlandish, is totally in the realm of possibility.

Sarah Romeo, as no-nonsense AI program inventor, Acorn, interrogates Isaac Simmons who gives a nuanced comedic/tragic performance as well-meaning but embattled new state school board chairman, Whit Forsyth. Morgan Sophia Photography.

Serious quickly turns to slapstick when masked students Gitmo (Sarah Romeo) and D (Elizabeth Price) harshly kidnap Whit and commence an interrogation. The littlest, Gitmo, is especially aggressive in her liberal use of a stun gun. To Whit’s question of “Who are you?” D responds, “You are our last shred of hope.” They want to know how he’ll assure they get a good education and when Whit explains he’s “doing the hard work, trying to compromise” re lesson plans, they come up with this disingenuously honest observation: How do you know to be taught what you don’t know?

Gitmo breaks Whit’s phone and D yells “No property damage!” Then counters with:  “When the time comes and you have to vote, remember us and the people who spent their lives fighting corporate greed.”

Seth Trucks announces the subject: American History. Whit seeks a meeting with corporate hotshot Chris (Jason Peck), but first must get through conference room receptionist Winona (Pamela S. Hankerson). Chris informs Whit: “You are an architect helping shape what goes into children’s ears.” Then asks “Why do we teach slavery? I’ve heard rumblings around the board … there are folks interested in keeping secession state voices alive.” Whit says: “The Civil war was about slavery.” 

Whit appears hypnotized when Winona returns to dress him in a civil war jacket while a pop song plays to help him focus on the desired vote. 

When Doug discovers Whit collapsed on the floor, car keys missing, he asks if he wants a lift, as in Lyft, the ride service. Explaining he also moonlights as a Lyft driver (likely a side comment about our economy’s failing the middle class). 

Elizabeth Price introduces Science. And now Sarah Romeo appears as an adult (in a red coat) called Acorn, inventor of an AI that does a lot more than your run-of-the-mill computer. The “Intelligent Designer” she named RAE (voiced by Seth Trucks) instructs Whit on exactly how to vote on school board motions: For items 2, 6, 7, 15 vote Yes. For items 1, 3-5, 8, 9, 10-14 vote No. Why listen to an AI’s advice? Because it’s been designed by culling data on human behavior and, as RAE explains, “I’m not like the virtual assistant on your now-destroyed Samsung Galaxy phone.” And “Unlike most humans, I am an active listener.”

When an exhausted Whit finally gets home, he complains to his wife (Pamela S. Hankerson) about being tasered and accosted by three different groups in one day. He then dreams of Thurgood Marshall (also played by Pamela S. Hankerson), the first Black supreme court justice who passed away in 1993 and appears angered that Americans don’t know idly about the constitution. 

Thurgood asks Whit what are the five things he wants a child to know coming out of school? Whit’s answer: math, writing, science, social skills, faith. Thurgood takes issue with Number 5. “What kind of faith?” he asks, when one must have separation of church and state. Whit’s wife appears as an advocate for private school. Whereas Thurgood jokes POC (as in “Parents of Color”) will debate the best option for their child. Whit revises his “top five,” and they all dance together.

The lengthy list of groups and issues presented here may seem heavy-handed (and I haven’t even listed them all … we encounter homeschooling advocates and wandering truants, as well). But the 90-minute play, without intermission, sports a rather light-hearted, comedic touch supported by weird costumes, a busy mashup of decades of classroom posters as backdrop, catchy rap song-and-dance interludes with even some oldies like the Star Wars theme, Burl Ives, and Blue Muppet numbers thrown in. 

Seth Trucks as Doug (PBS-affiliate interviewer and Lyft driver) helps Isaac Simmons (put-upon new school board chair Whit Forsyth) to his feet after yet another violent confrontation with a segment of his constituents. Morgan Sophia Photography.

Yes, there are over-the-top acts of aggression that resonate passion – but no one gets seriously hurt. The sit-com/comedy improv vibe prevails, keeps us on our toes, and leaves us with lots to think about. Maybe no two adults will ever agree about “What’s best for the children.” But as a society, we must come together with an honest form of education that will both inspire and provide the tools for the next generation to do a better job than we did at making our world a better place. 

I give Matt Stabile an A+ for acing the challenging task of directing this alternately deep, different, and zany world premiere. His crew of scenic designer/set dresser Aubrey Kestell, costume designer/wardrobe head Timothy Bowman, lighting designer George Horrocks, sound designer Matt Corey, choreographer Nicole Perry and fight choreographer David A. Hyland all performed with distinction. And, as to be expected from a Theatre Lab production, all the actors – many longtime local favorites as well as a few newer (to us) additions – completely nailed all of their often-multiple roles. 

WHAT’S BEST FOR THE CHILDREN is playing through April 28 at Theatre Lab – a lovely black-box theater with stadium-height seating situated on a lakefront with outdoor tables for early arrivals – on FAU’s main campus at 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton 33431. For tickets see fauevents.com and scroll down to “All Upcoming Events.”

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