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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 9, 2022

Leon Addison Brown and Biko Eisen-Martin
Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez
Other than the plethora of flowers that are integral to the production, there is nothing remotely soft about Soft, Donja R. Love's hard-hitting play about a group of students at a correctional boarding school, and their English teacher who strives against all odds to get them to drop their tough exteriors and expose their battered and vulnerable hearts, minds and souls.

Opening tonight at MCC Theater Space's Frankel Theater, Soft, at first glance, may suggest you are in familiar territory, the story of a dedicated teacher working with troubled and troublesome teens. It's a set-up that has fed films and TV shows for decades: "Blackboard Jungle," "To Sir, With Love," and even "Welcome Back, Kotter," to name but a few. But there are no pat endings (or beginnings or middles, for that matter) to the ideas being explored here, about Brown and Black young men who have only a very narrow chance of escaping from difficult family situations and a school-to-prison pipeline that has failed them in every way.

At the front of the minimally-appointed institutional setting of a classroom stands the teacher, Mr. Isaiah (Biko Eisen-Martin), himself a Black man who barely escaped the fate of his charges who are less than a decade younger than he. At opening, it does seem he has been successful with reaching his six students. He is handing back assignments about Shakespeare's Othello and praising their work. "You all did an excellent job talking about the play, its characters, its themes," he says. To which one of the students points out what is obvious to all of them: "Dat's cuz Othello was a niggaaaaaaa."

So, yes, Mr. Isaiah does seem to know how to reach his students in a way that will allow them to find commonality, even with Shakespeare. And as long as he is able to keep things in a we're-in-this-together holding pattern, it does seem like his hopeful optimism might, indeed, make a difference to their futures. Unfortunately, his overall approach, including his acceptance of what in any other setting might be deemed highly inappropriate classroom behavior, sets him up to fall into an unfortunate but common trap of failing to draw a clear line between being a supportive teacher and being a friend. When he does deem a line has been crossed, he has no recourse but to send miscreants out of the classroom, so that the school's world-weary director Mr. Cartwright (Leon Addison Brown), himself scarred in more ways than one, is left to handle the situation. When the inevitable explosion happens, it turns out to be not what you might expect, but sadly much worse.

I'll reveal no more of the plot, save to say it leads to a conclusion that seems as inevitable as in a Greek tragedy, or, perhaps, in Othello. Miracles are in short supply here, and things end as they must, with only a breath of hope offered by way of a final epilogue directed to Black and Brown members of the audience. As for me, who is neither Black nor Brown, I can only offer my own flowers of compassion and plaudits to the playwright, to director Whitney White, and to the fine, fine cast: Mr. Eisen-Martin; Mr. Brown; and the six young actors for their outstanding work in portraying the students, Dharon Jones as Antoine, Essence Lotus as Dee, Travis Raeburn as Bashir, Shakur Tolliver as Kevin, Dario Vazquez as Jamal, and Ed Ventura as Eddie. Never lose touch with the softness within.

Through June 26, 2022
MCC Theater
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street and 10th Avenue, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: MCC Theater