Prolific Dallas playwright Jonathon Norton has a new one called Homeschooled, directed by Regina Washington at African American Repertory Theatre in DeSoto. At 85 minutes, it's the right length for the play's extended bouts of angst among three women at odds over how to teach the most violent episodes in black history to young children.
Lead teacher Johnetta (Denise Lee) isn't aware that her young assistant, hijab-wearing Rashida (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), has answered a student's question about lynching with the tragic story of murdered black teen Emmett Till. Discovering a graphically detailed drawing of a lynched and castrated man done by one of the students, Johnetta's sister Morgan (Eleanor Threatt-Hardy) objects to Rashida's lesson and announces that she's taking her smart 8-year-old (adorable Allysen Elizabeth Jackson) out of the homeschool environment and enrolling her in an expensive private academy. Johnetta feels betrayed.
The play suffers from a lack of focus on what it really wants to say. As it is, Homeschooled doesn't keep the stakes high enough to warrant its many emotional breakdowns and bursts of tears. Is the conflict here about different ways black parents teach ethnic history? Is it about lingering family squabbles among sisters? Is the real problem the young assistant's desire to add Arabic to the curriculum?
The issues may be fuzzy, but the acting is crystal clear. Lee, Threatt-Hardy and Marshall-Oliver are so good together that they consistently elevate the flat stretches of dialogue with heartfelt performances, achieving subtler, deeper shifts in emotion than the script would suggest.