For some, the path to purpose might feel circuitous, full of detours or seemingly unconnected experiences. But, as life is lived, the things that shape a person — relationships, moving to new cities or starting new jobs — become clearer, and the ability to contextualize them emerges. Recognizing how each season of life informs the other can help one thread together these seemingly unrelated experiences that push one closer and closer to their truest self.
That discovery or self-actualization is at the core of "Mr. Parent," by Melinda Lopez (through Feb. 6) at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston. The thoughtful, humorous, one-person show directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, focuses on the experiences of actor and co-producing artistic director of Front Porch Arts Collective, Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Parent spent several years teaching in the Boston Public School system to support himself while pursuing a career in theater. The play provides a closer look at Parent’s journey but also succeeds in getting audiences to consider the inequities children encounter in the public school system.
It’s sobering to hear about Parent’s experiences as a teacher by day and struggling actor by night pulling in under $300 a week for the latter in the beginning. But his time at the head of the class was transformative. Through the years, he evolves from the kind Mr. Maurice who wants to be more than a teacher to the stern, more commanding (I’m sure still kind) Mr. Parent, and realizes he is learning just as much from the kids as they learned from him.
At one point, a projector gets rolled out. “Desegregation in Boston Public Schools, a documentary,” says Parent. Dozens of heads look toward the wall, but there are no images, only historical facts shared verbally that elicit what sounds like disappointed "hmms" from the crowd. It could have been even more powerful had there been a montage of photos along with facts to reinforce the reality Parent was sharing. There is homework, linked on the site that curious attendees can check out post-show.
Ever the teacher though, Parent has more than a few lessons at the ready. Throughout the roughly 90-minute play, there are mini-polls that show-goers answer with raised hands and pop-quizzes that test their knowledge of racial equity or the lack thereof in the Commonwealth and how it affects the education system. Despite school desegregation laws, research suggests that Massachusetts schools are still “intensely segregated.” Parent’s students, many of whom were Black and brown, were ensnared in the web of under-resourced segregated schools.
In “Mr. Parent,” set in a classroom with orange, blue and cream linoleum floors and blue chairs, the actor peels back the layers of his life for audiences to see with vulnerability and veracity. He talks of the other teachers, one world-weary Republican and the other, a fearless, “tiny but mighty” art teacher whom the children adore and whom he befriends. Together the two would pool their money and provide special opportunities for the kids like paying for a class in Cambridge for two seventh graders.
The seed for the play was planted when Parent recounted tales about the kids he taught to fellow actors and other cast members during rehearsals for other plays. After connecting with the accomplished Lopez ("Mala," “Young Nerds of Color”), a master at culling compelling narratives from conversations and interviews, and Sandberg-Zakian, the play started to take shape.
Some of the more heart-warming recollections include Parent's story about his gay uncle who has played a pivotal role in his life. Parent wore his beloved uncle’s red-leather Hungarian dancing boots — which kissed the streets of gay New York in the '80s — to an audition. Parent says that he's not a religious man, but that moment in the boots was the closest thing to holiness that he’s ever felt. Another time, Parent remembers encouraging a student with artistic abilities to be comfortable with being different.
But there are moments where Parent generously shares what went wrong too. He recalls feeling overwhelmed at times by the herculean task of teaching and caring for his sometimes-over-enrolled classes, his disappointment upon learning he didn’t get a potentially life-changing gig and reaching a fever pitch of emotional stress after someone took his coffee mug at work. That moment made him want to be more intentional about his life’s direction.
Parent is an Elliot Norton Award-winning thespian who has distinguished himself in a wide range of characters from a wolf in “Into the Woods” to Mister in “The Color Purple.” But he’s quick to note onstage that teaching, with all its good days and bad, has influenced his acting career and his life.
What pierces the heart — as evidenced by the streaming tears on the face of my theater companion, a Black male who taught for years in Maryland and another person who declared “What a powerful performance,” on the way out — is what Parent surmises after these moments rather than the stories themselves. Sure, the memories of the kids and his journey are funny, painful, and enlightening. But his acute awareness of the indelible mark those students have left on his heart and spirit and what he does with all that he’s learned about himself and the world is even more notable and enduring.
"Mr. Parent" is showing through Feb. 6 at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston.