One-Man Show about an Actor’s Time Teaching in Boston Schools Opens Boston Playwrights’ Theatre Season
Mr. Parent explores sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious experience in the classroom
More than a decade ago, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, struggling to make a living as an actor, took a job teaching performing arts in the Boston Public Schools.
“Preschool through 8th grade. Six periods a day, teaching theatre. How hard can that be?” Hmmm…
Parent’s five years in the system changed him profoundly. Beginning Tuesday at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, he’s telling the heartbreaking and hilarious story of his classroom adventures in the one-man show Mr. Parent, running through October 22. Written by Melinda Lopez (GRS’00), a College of Arts & Sciences adjunct assistant professor of playwriting, with Parent, the play opens BPT’s 2023-2024 season.
Mr. Parent answers its own question, How hard indeed? Parent sees the beauty in every kid, and the hilarity in their behavior, but his stories also reveal the hardships and traumas that have shaped them, the poverty and systemic racism, the ways society and their schools fail them, no matter how hard he and (some) other teachers try.
And he comes at me,
this second grader
All rage and fury and this tiny body ready to
gouge out my eyes… And I am just not trained
Through all the rewards and all the stress, Parent was acting, living his dream, often at poverty wages, rehearsing or performing from 5 to 11 pm, and somehow making it back for class by 7:30 the next morning, day after day, week after week, until finally, when rehearsals and class schedules conflicted, he had to choose.
“The Huntington [Theatre Company] sent the offer for [a role in] Skeleton Crew. And I said no. Because I had a day job. And they were like, are you sure?” he says. “It was a torturous evening. I’m just like, dude, what are you doing? The Huntington, the biggest contract in town! What are you doing? So I said, can you just give me two more days to think about it? And in those two days I decided.”
Boston theater is glad he did. Parent’s acting résumé is long and deep, with roles in recent years at the Huntington (Skeleton Crew, Merrily We Roll Along), SpeakEasy Stage (Scottsboro Boys, Bootcandy), New Repertory Theatre, Underground Railway, Wheelock Family Theatre, Lyric Stage, and Actors’ Shakespeare Project, where he is a member of the resident company. He is also coproducing artistic director of The Front Porch Arts Collective and teaches acting at local colleges, including seven years as an adjunct faculty member at BU. He’s now a professor of the practice at Tufts.
Megan Sandberg-Zakian, BPT’s artistic director, directed him in that production of Skeleton Crew. And, perhaps because it was hard to shake the classroom and leave the kids behind, Parent says, “I was telling story after story of my time with the kids, during breaks and meals and walking to the car. One of the actresses in the show, her face was sore from laughing so much. And Megan was like, I think there’s a one-man show here.”
Parent, Lopez, and Sandberg-Zakian all knew each other from working around town. “Megan came to me and said, ‘Have you heard Maurice talk about his experience teaching?’” Lopez says. “And I said, ‘No, I’ve never.’ And she said, ‘It’s a one-man show. And I think you should write it.’”
That was six or seven years ago. The three of them hunkered down in a room and turned on a tape recorder. Parent told his stories, Lopez and Sanberg-Zakian asked questions. The material piled up. Lopez says she provided the “architecture,” shaping it with the aid of her experience with her acclaimed one-woman show Mala.
Mr. Parent has been in development on and off ever since, with readings and workshops and a brief run at the Lyric Stage that was cut short by the resurgent pandemic.
The play is anecdotal, personal, without externalizing or explaining or abstracting. It lets you see and hear what Parent saw and heard—and maybe feel what he felt.
“I think a lot of that is Melinda,” Sandberg-Zakian says. “She’s so skilled at it. She would take a 45-minute-long stream of consciousness from Maurice and distill it so it would still be his words, but somehow his words arranged in such a way that you feel what’s underneath them, you know, so she’s not explaining or psychologizing.
“The end of the play, not to give away spoilers, but the story that she has put at the end of the play, which has no explanation in terms of why it’s ending the play, it’s just, it hits so hard. And people would come out and tell us what the ending meant.”
The credits read: “by Melinda Lopez with Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Conceived with and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian.” But both women say the sometimes wrenching, sometimes hilarious material is all Parent’s.
“There is struggle and there is a reckoning,” Lopez says, “both in the story that he tells, but also in the room with the audience every night—there’s something that’s got to happen between him and the audience here that a more plotted play would not have.
There is struggle and there is a reckoning.
“How can you live a life where you are your fullest self and where you are invested in your community and also able to bring your full self to your work? And also able to eat? These are questions that many of us encounter. What if you love two things?”
Also at BPT this season…
Like most small and regional theaters, and even some big ones, BPT is taking a deep breath post-pandemic, tweaking how it does business, looking for new ways of succeeding. So this season is a little different, with only one other full production after Mr. Parent.
Driving in Circles, a new musical by Jay Eddy, directed by Sam Plattus, will run March 21 to April 6, 2024. Described by BPT as “a solo-ish new work that traverses the highway between confessional monologue, stand-up comedy, and rock concert,” the play traces the aftermath of intimate violence “through the bodymind-altering landscapes of trauma towards something like happiness.”
Also on the schedule are the Fringe Festival of workshop presentations of brand-new plays by MFA program writers and a December 4 public reading of Kill the Magistrate by Abbey Fenbert (GRS’15), directed by Courtney Elkin Mohler, part of the Jack Welch Developmental Residencies.