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Ursula's Battle

After Winning a Small But Loyal Following, Playwright Ursula Battle Struggles to Bring Her Amateur Production to a Broader Audience

Lounge Act: Playwright Ursula Battle wants to steer her homegrown production toward the mainstream.

By Tom Siebert | Posted 5/7/2003

The Teachers' Lounge has a long way to go before becoming the My Big Fat Greek Wedding of the thespian crowd that its author wants it to be, but the homegrown amateur play returns to Coppin State College this weekend for its third go-round in less than eight months, with the growing buzz that accompanies a sleeper hit.

Written and produced by former Baltimore Times and Afro-American reporter Ursula Battle, The Teachers' Lounge is set in a fictional public school in an unnamed city, as well as in the homes of several of the school's educators, and the production features a mostly black cast. It premiered with a limousines-and-red-carpet gala affair last September at Coppin State to good word of mouth within Baltimore's education and African-American communities, increasing its attendance from solid on Friday to nearly sold-out on Sunday.

The play--fully titled, Ursula V. Battle's The Teachers' Lounge--then reappeared last Thanksgiving at Morgan State University, and again drew well. Now, in conjunction with National Teacher Appreciation Week, it's returning to Coppin, and the full-blown PR thrust is on, with Battle battling to push her play toward the mainstream.

"I do not want this play to be viewed as a black play-- I want this to be a play for everybody," Battle says, acknowledging that The Teachers' Lounge audiences so far have been largely African-American. "I want this to be a universal play about education. When you look at the characters, you see issues that affect all people."

But the play's history--including its niche success-- suggests it's going to be a challenging transition.

Battle says she started writing The Teachers' Lounge almost a dozen years ago, after she and her mother a ttended a showing of the urban play Beauty Shop. Her mother, a Baltimore teacher for 30 years, suggested she write a play about teachers in the same vein.

"I worked on it, off and on, for about 11 years, then finally sat down in 2000 and completely rewrote it," Battle says. "I worked for four months straight to finish it."

Battle then had friends in the right places to help her get it from the page to the stage. The Baltimore Times and Afro-American, her former employers, sponsored its September debut, and both papers gave the production extensive coverage beforehand and rave reviews afterward. Her alma mater and current employer, Coppin State, where Battle works in the public relations department, provided the venue.

The result is a long lark that's unlike much of what's found on the mainstream stage. Clocking in at about 150 minutes and cast with amateurs, the production has the feel of equal parts situation comedy and soap opera, as stock characters deliver long expository monologues and the emphasis is on shopworn melodrama.

Battle acknowledges the melodramatic hue of her subplots, saying it is necessary to create sympathy for her characters.

"I wanted to write this play as a tribute to teachers, to make people appreciate that they have lives outside the school," she says. "When we were in school, we had the teacher in front of the classroom, and that teacher could be having all kinds of problems and you might never know it."

In The Teachers' Lounge, educators hover between the typical and the stereotypical. There's an arrogant social studies teacher married to a handsome attorney; an outspoken and attractive reading teacher with a secret; a language arts teacher who has a solution to everybody's problem but her own; a beneficent special-ed teacher who overeats; the school's new, conspiring assistant principal; and a token hot white schoolmarm. Add to this mix of archetypes two more from the male side: a flamboyant gay math teacher, a bombastic buffoon inserted for broad comic relief, and a fine-looking and charming health teacher, a desirable bachelor who needs to realize there's a hole in his life. Finally, there's support from a couple other familiar parts: dueling secretaries--gossip vs. worker bee--and the school's mysterious cleaning lady, who holds a deus ex machina up her dirty sleeve for a subplot or two.

Though the characters work in school, their problems and moral dilemmas have far more to do with their personal lives than the real-life tribulations plaguing the American school system. There are passing references to overcrowded classrooms, lousy or absent materials, and other generic problems teachers face, but the emphasis remains on the inner turmoil of the teachers, who present a sunny face in the teachers' lounge but have two handfuls of daytime drama facing them once they leave school grounds.

With its simple morals, narrow characters, predictable plot twists, and pat resolutions in which everyone learns something (though not everyone is happier for it), The Teachers' Lounge draws heavily from the critically dismissed but commercially successful genre of so-called urban plays, the secular descendants of the more evangelical gospel plays.The urban play Beauty Shop, Battle's initial inspiration for The Teachers' Lounge, has enjoyed box office success, even though one Philadelphia critic described as an "outlandish chitlin' circuit play."

Though it doesn't feature any music--unlike most of its urban and gospel counterparts--The Teachers' Lounge shares many qualities of both, which typically offer archetypal stories that hinge on clear moral choices. And they both feature easily recognizable stock characters, egging on the audience to respond to caricatures of people it recognizes from real life--not all that dissimilar from the exaggerated Jewish jokiness of the Catskills circuit, say. The question is whether the exaggerated characters, cliché plots, and uplift of the urban play can cross over into a larger theater audience, even a larger black theater audience.

Though Battle says her original intent was for the cast to be more integrated--during tryouts, not a single white person auditioned, she says, and the part of the rich, suburban science teacher had to be actively recruited--the popular success of The Teachers' Lounge still rests with black audiences, which have greeted it with a hunger for relevant theatrical entertainment.

Ed Terry, artistic director for Arena Players, a Baltimore community theater that presents artistic productions for black audiences, and which itself is debuting an ambitious stage biography of Billie Holiday during the run of The Teachers' Lounge, says he is familiar with the play's success. Terry attributes the play's following so far to the way in which "this sort of play opens up the experience of theater to a whole new population that has not been involved in the traditional theater. There's an identification with this from people who must be missing something in what we're doing."

If there is a sense of competition here, though, it is not new. Gospel and urban plays rent out the Lyric Opera House for about five weeks of the year, for instance, and often do knockout business, says Sandy Richmond, executive director of the Lyric.

Still, Battle says her ultimate intention is to take the play to a wider audience and recast it so the characters are more racially diverse. But it didn't happen for this production, and Battle says there are no plans for recasting The Teachers' Lounge before it makes its first appearance in front of a broader audience in mid-July, when it is slated to run in Washington, D.C., during the annual conference of the American Federation of Teachers. Battle says she has no doubts that her work could cross over, but she questions whether it needs to be altered to do so. She says the key to the play's success is based not on race but occupation.

"In terms of taking it more mainstream, making it a more diverse cast, I've given that some thought, and it's almost like if the shoe isn't broke, you don't fix it," Battle says. "People have embraced the play as it is. But we don't want to exclude ourselves from other areas, don't want that to be a sticking point from attracting people of other races. More African-Americans than Caucasians have come to see this play, but the majority of people in the audience are educators. And everywhere you go in this country, you have schools."

The Teachers' Lounge will be performed May 9 and May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Coppin State College's James Weldon Johnson Auditorium. For information call (410) 951-3900.

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