Take a Seat and Enjoy Detention With the Modern ‘Breakfast Club’
We laugh with them, fight with them, get high with them, and learn their secrets.
Roundabout Underground’s “Exception to the Rule” is a “Breakfast Club” for the modern high school — quicker, crasser, and funnier.
Kanye West’s “Mercy” blares as lights come up on a classroom in an unspecified inner city. The set by Reid Thompson and Kamil James is familiar, and so intimate that KN95s are required for the first row of audience members. There are six student desks and one for a teacher, a spot-lit intercom, and an American flag. The only thing missing is a clock.
“Students. This is the ‘end of the day’ announcement. Today is Friday, January 18th,” the intercom crackles. “Students required to go to detention will report to room 111. Do not be late.”
School sounds erupt: bells, voices, lockers, and footsteps. “In other news,” the disembodied voice continues, “standardized test results came in this afternoon. We ranked 43rd out of the 49 high schools in the city. We’ll try for number one next year.”
One by one, we get to know the six black students who enter room 111. Mikayla, played perfectly by Amandla Jahava, pulls no punches. Tommy, played by Malik Childs, is buoyant and layered, and Claudia Logan’s Dasani is observant and brash. Mister Fitzgerald plays Abdul, a quiet student suppressing his desire for something more. Most engaging is Dayrin, played by a provoking Toney Goins. Although he’s the instigator, he’s also the softest, challenging our notions of good and bad.
All of these kids have clearly been here before. Last comes the curveball — Erika, the smart girl, nice girl, the “take the test and f— up the curve for everyone else girl,” played by Maya Boateng with gravitas and poise.
We sit with them, laugh with them, fight with them, get high with them, and learn their secrets. Mikayla makes her own clothes from her sister’s hand-me-downs. Dasani takes fries from the garbage can. Tommy says he watched his brother die in a drive-by shooting. They pass the time and wait for their teacher, Mr. Bernie, to arrive and sign their papers and set them free.
The show is so deeply poignant and uproariously funny, and the characters so compelling, that we almost forget that Mr. Bernie is very late. In this classroom from the Twilight Zone, with no clock or cell reception, we almost forget that any time has passed at all.
The play takes a sinister turn, and playwright Dave Harris shows off his genre-bending talent. The lights go out, steel gates cover the windows. “Students. The building is now closed. Lockdown has commenced.” The Principal Vernon-esque intercom voice has grown sinister. “There is no no one there here here here,” it glitches. “Nothing. Here. You. Nothing. You. Here.”
They have been forgotten. It’s up to each kid to deal with waiting for Mr. Bernie or walking out the unlocked door under the looming threat of “consequences.”
“There’s no one keeping us in this room,” Erika observes. “There’s nothing keeping us here.”
“We in detention. We gotta wait for Mr. Bernie,” a passive Dasani says. “Then we can go, Sweet Pea. Then we can go.”
“Exception to the Rule” exposes a deeper battle: between personal autonomy and caving under the weight of circumstance. Who, or what, is to blame for these forgotten students? Systemic injustice? Teachers unions? The welfare state? Mr. Harris strikes a unique balance, political but fair.
The bars slide inconspicuously off the windows. Mr. Bernie never shows, but no one is surprised. Those who remain wait at attention, trapped by others and by their own inaction. Is it the same day? How long have they been in this room? We don’t know and, in a way, it doesn’t matter.
“Students. This is the end of the day announcement.”