Evan Hunter’s bestselling 1954 novel, “The Blackboard Jungle,” was inspired by the author’s previous job as a teacher at the Bronx Vocational High School. Back in 1950, Hunter lasted two months before becoming disillusioned and quitting. Glenn Ford played that teacher in the 1955 movie version of “Blackboard Jungle,” with Sidney Poitier cast as his rebellious but gifted student. In the following decade, Poitier switched roles to play the teacher trying to educate students in the tough East End of London in “To Sir, With Love.”
Nothing Evan Hunter or those two fictional teachers faced comes close to replicating what Mr. Isaiah encounters in Donja R. Love’s tough new play, “Soft,” which opened Thursday at the MCC Theater. Playing that dedicated teacher, Biko Eisen-Martin could show both Poitier and Ford a few techniques on how to handle an unruly classroom. He’s teaching Shakespeare’s “Othello” to six teenagers at a correctional boarding school. Unlike the teachers in “Blackboard Jungle” or “To Sir, with Love,” Mr. Isaiah can hold the threat of more time in that institution, or worse, over his students to achieve discipline.
The “Othello” assignment goes better than expected. What the Bard is doing isn’t all that much different from rap, and the students often ask for “a beat” from Mr. Isaiah before they can begin their dissertations. Mr. Isaiah is expert at replicating a DJ’s mixing with his cupped hands and mouth. Also expert is Love’s writing in the opening scene that immediately establishes each of the students in their yellow fatigues (costumes by Qween Jean). The suicide of the most gifted student, Kevin (Shakur Toliver), comes early in the play, and is bookended by two scenes between Mr. Isaiah and Mr. Cartwright (Leon Addison Brown), who runs the correctional facility.
Two scenes are probably not enough to establish this complicated relationship between two men at opposite ends of their respective careers. Love’s writing here is more manipulative than inspired. Mr. Cartwright is too dismissive in the first scene and two damning in the second. Back to back, the two scenes certainly evoke frustration at the injustice of the boss’ treatment of a subordinate, but it also detracts from Mr. Isaiah’s pain regarding his perception that he has failed a student.
Over the ensuing scenes, “Soft” slowly begins to build a stronger foundational portrait of a community of young men. Love wisely drops us into ongoing debates between the characters. In the beginning, that approach can leave us grasping to put together all the loose ends, but once we’ve spent time with these characters an extremely tangled and fascinating web of relationships emerges. Some of those relationships even precede their time in the correctional facility.
At its core, “Soft” is a meditation on masculinity and why a young man like Kevin couldn’t survive the hard culture engulfing him. Kevin is that kind of character that disappears early in a play but is the one everyone talks about until the end. Antoine (Dharon Jones) and Dee (Essence Lotus) were the closest to Kevin, and their ongoing competition over that memory fuels the play with surprising revelation after revelation.
Whitney White’s direction loads the drama with provocative details, and she is particularly effective not only with her actors but in creating visually arresting segues that link the play’s many scenes. Also inspired is Adam Rigg’s scenic design that surrounds the beat-up classroom with gardens of gorgeous flowers. Their petals sometimes drop down from the ceiling at key moments in the drama.
The characters here are real men and they’re soft.
The talented ensemble also features Travis Raeburn, Dario Vazquez and Ed Ventura.