In 2013 Chicago saw the largest school closure in the city’s history; the Board of Education voted to shut down 49 public schools in an attempt to combat a massive budget deficit. An estimated 12,000 students were displaced.
For local playwright Ike Holter, it was a good opportunity to write about some of the real issues facing his community. Thus was born Exit Strategy, which opened Off-Broadway April 11, about a group of high school teachers and one student who attempt to fight an impending closure.
“We started talking about the strike and what that meant, not just as a propaganda piece but as an examination as to what these people were going through,” says Holter. “We just tried to put a human face on this very large kerfuffle that was spreading across the city.” Holter spoke to local teachers and people who had been through and were part of the education system.
Exit Strategy was commissioned by Chicago’s Jackalope Theater, where it had its world premiere and played to sold-out houses. Holter, who was named Chicagoan of the Year in Theatre 2014 by the Chicago Tribune, says he was excited about having a show that was set in the city and that talked about the city. “My focus is on serving this community and engaging in dialogue with audiences around here,” he explains.
“Over half my plays are set in Chicago, and they’re about people who live there. I think Exit Strategy hits home, hopefully, for a lot of people in Chicago because they recognize these [characters],” he continues. “That’s exciting for me because I don’t feel that there’s a lot of theatrical content that is made about Chicago.“ Holter points out that while there's a lot of great theatre in Chicago—it’s home to such stalwarts as Steppenwolf Theatre, the Goodman and Second City—there are not a lot of plays set in Chicago.
Writing a play about his own city also allows Holter to present a diverse range of voices; there are seven characters in Exit Strategy, and four of them are of color. “That’s the make up of Chicago…most of the city is actually non-white,” says the playwright. “When you’re doing a show about Chicago, it’s cool to have a diverse cast because that’s what the city actually looks like.”
While the play isn't centered around the topic of race, the examination of the city’s socio-economic issues means that race is inevitably part of the conversation. “They are not going to be fine,” says one of the teachers about her students in the play. “Fine is for white kids and Northside kids and all the other kids who aren’t our kids; our kids have to work and work three times as hard or else nobody’s gonna think twice.”
Holter is reluctant to talk about race in his work however, as he is cautious of being “tokenized“ as an artist of color. “We don’t introduce [a white male] writer as a ‘straight white man,’ but we tokenize every female or a person of color, regardless of gender. I think until we stop doing that, until we start introducing every white guy like they are a person of color or a woman—like they are an anomaly—I don’t think anything is going to change. I prefer not to talk about race because I don’t think that same question is being given to white writers that are male.
“It’s a difficult thing because it is something that is in my plays,” continues Holter. “I just think the audience comes in with the expectation that: ‘Oh, this is a person of color, they’re going to write their exact life.’”
So what, exactly, is at the heart of his newest work, Exit Strategy?
“I think Exit Strategy is about a school closing, but it’s also about these people going through trauma,” explains Holter. “They’re experiencing it all very differently…this is a show about people learning how to mourn…I think that’s the biggest thing that ties all these characters together.” It’s also a play filled with razor-sharp humor and a lot of hope, in which a tenacious group of people believe, just for a moment, that they can change the world.
Directed by Kip Fagan, Exit Strategy is playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through May 6. Visit primarystages.org/shows/current-season/exit-strategy.