They Call Me Mister Fry
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 16, 2008
They Call Me Mister Fry, a one-man one-act written and performed by Jack Freiberger, directed by Jeff Michalski, recounts Jack's first year as a full-time teacher in South Central Los Angeles, dealing with emotional traumas, street violence, and rigid bureaucracy.
Tired of being a "sub-slut" who teaches children for a day and then leaves, Indiana-born Jack, or "Mr. Fry," nervously answers a video ad to teach at super-prestigious Carpenter Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles. There, he notes, "even the hamsters at the science lab read at a fifth-grade level." Inspired by the musical Camelot and using King Arthur as an imaginary mentor, Jack wins the position, then loses it for being "the wrong color of the rainbow" (white). Instead, he's directed to Academy Elementary School in South Central L.A., which has three-legged desks, bullet holes in the window, graffiti with bad penmanship, and perhaps scariest of all, No Child Left Behind.
"Are these students' hopes and dreams different from those at Carpenter?" he reasons. "It's got to be safe; look at all these police here!" Armed with a yellow balloon sword birthed from his party clown skills, Jack determines to unleash the King Arthur within every student, using creativity and entertainment to educate.
An alumnus of Wonder Bread Elementary whose worst childhood death experience was with a pet turtle, Jack is soon engulfed in a world where kids want to be "gangstas," parents are too overwhelmed to read their children's poems, and wearing the wrong color can get you stabbed to death. He's constricted in a system where each class "learns the exact same thing at the exact same time to the minute." His live-in girlfriend Nancy, who once chided him for being "lazy and incompetent", now chides him for being too involved. No Child's "academic SWAT team", underscored with the Darth Vader theme, invades his classroom and writes him up for using a toy weapon—the yellow balloon sword. Jack discovers that "children love to learn, but hate to be taught."
Freiberger portrays not only his wide-eyed self, but also a "Nubian god" of a principal, a martinet veteran teacher, a boy's concerned Hispanic uncle, and King Arthur. He focuses on portraying two troubled fifth-graders: Anthony, a wannabe-tough, "Yo"-ing, arm-gesturing Latino rape baby who brings a knife and cappuccino to school, and Jasmine, a shy, physically developing, sensitive African American poet who desperately wants a father figure, who bows her head as she draws a semi-circle with her foot.
His characterizations are good, and the show is funny and poignant. Visual aids projected on screen—a teacher evaluation, a student's note, pages of poems—enhance the show's realism. They Call Me Mister Fry illustrates the overwhelming challenges of teaching children growing up in discouraging circumstances, capturing the setbacks and progress of a well-meaning teacher caught between ultra-needy children and clueless bureaucracy.