Teacher Tested

Growing up is never easy. Many a show has documented the complicated emotions endured by teens, addressing such subjects as their topsy-turvy love lives, peer pressure, and unstable home situations. Playwright Dominique Cieri draws from her real-life experiences to provide a harrowing portrait of seven teenage girls' lives in Count Down, produced by Double Play Connections at the Bank Street Theater. "I wanna be a different girl, born on a different day" is the show's big tag line, and one of the first lines uttered by Carmela (Sandi Carroll). She has been hired to lead a 40-day arts program for abused and neglected teens, and the show focuses on the seven students to whom she is assigned. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and suffer from various afflictions. (According to publicity materials, Carmela's experiences stem from Cieri's 15 years as a teaching artist with at-risk youth.)

As one might expect, none of her students embraces Carmela with open arms at first. She encourages them to express themselves through confessional free-writing exercises, a conceit that allows the audience to see into their minds but never feels gimmicky.

Of course, Carmela's task is not exactly easy; just when she thinks she has made real progress, her students rebel again, causing her to second-guess her ability to reach these girls as they work together to perform a show by the end of the 40 days, to which the title refers. This kind of one-step-forward, two-steps-back cycle dominates much of Count Down's first act and even the beginning of the second, but it never feels redundant. Instead, it helps Cieri root the play in reality and addresses the fact that inner-city children's imaginations get stunted early on. After Carmela loses her students' trust, she must continue re-earning it. Cieri and director Elyse Knight handle these highs and lows with a deft hand.

Carmela also faces the occasional skirmish with Hobbs (Major Dodge), who is in charge of the program. He is a less-developed character, and as Carmela and the girls begin to really gel as a group, he turns out to be even more cryptic. Has he somehow taken advantage of his position? Are his intentions less than kind, or is Cieri aiming for something more surreal? This muddles the final moments of the play, which at two hours and 15 minutes is already packed with the characters' troubles and doesn't deserve any hint of melodrama.

It's Knight's well-rehearsed ensemble that makes Count Down such a worthwhile experience. As Carmela, Carroll strikes the perfect balance of optimism, intimidation, and despair. She called to mind a few teachers I had in public school. Kasey Lockwood and Reina Cedeno stand out as Miriam and Neema, two students who, despite their problems, let Carmela open up their minds before she can do so with the others. Valerie Blazek enters the cast later than her colleagues, but packs a mean punch as Amber, one of the most troubled students in Carmela's care. Megan Ferguson, Adepero Oduye, Dania Ramos, and Victoria L. Turner round out the cast with their acute, sensitive performances.

All do Cieri's important subject matter justice. Her self-proclaimed aim is to shine a light on domestic violence, and to demonstrate the role of art and artists in helping girls recover from such abuse. Everyone at the Bank Street Theater can consider that mission accomplished.

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