Did You Do Your Homework?
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
August 15, 2010
It's a story we all know well: A new teacher begins his or her career in the urban classroom and encounters many struggles. There are disrespectful, unmotivated students who curse openly and come late to class with their pants pulled down below their butts. There's a lack of resources, lack of support, and lack of hope. There are standardized, high stakes tests which the students must pass. The struggling teacher must work hard against all odds to reach and inspire the students.
Because the story is so well known, the challenge for any playwright who takes up this material is to make it fresh. As audience members, we don't want to see the cliches we've seen a million times. We want to be moved and uplifted. We want to learn. Luckily, Did You Do Your Homework?, written and performed by Aaron Braxton, and directed by Kathleen Rubin, does all of that and tells a story worth watching.
An important choice Braxton makes is that he structures his one-person show as a play, with a plot and with developed characters. He begins by introducing the context, setting, and main characters. He's a substitute teacher on his first day and the students are unruly.
Braxton chooses four student characters—two major characters, Laquita and Brian, and two minor characters, Trayvon and America. He develops Laquita and Brian's conflicts from introduction to conclusion and touches on the conflicts of the two minor characters as examples of the needs of the students he works with. Because Braxton decides to focus on a few specific students, the audience becomes more invested in them and we get to know them as nuanced human beings.
Braxton easily transitions among the characters with strong, specific physical choices. My favorite part is a monologue told by Brian while he plays with a basketball. The monologue lets us see inside Brian's head and know where he is coming from, giving us information that Braxton does not even know himself. I admire Braxton's total commitment to Laquita, from the beginning when she is a smart aleck trying to get attention, to the end when she begins to trust him completely.
I especially appreciate that Braxton gives his own character complexity. He shows himself making mistakes, and he admits that he doesn't always know what he's doing and that he's not always right. This choice—to not be a Superman—makes him relatable and sympathetic. Braxton also has a beautiful singing voice, and he uses it to punctuate three key points of the play.
Overall, I would recommend this piece as a good example of what can be done with a "teacher play." I especially recommend it to teachers—who might need a shot of inspiration as we begin the new school year—and to students—who might learn from Braxton's relentless messages of self-belief and the importance of education.