Producer: DeVos play not meant as ‘cartoon or lampoon’

Maria Danilova
Associated Press

Washington – Guns in schools to protect students from grizzly bears? Betsy DeVos endured yet another rocky confirmation hearing in the Senate to become education secretary – this time on a theater stage.

In a play performed Monday at Washington’s Arena Stage theater, about a dozen student actors from local high schools posed as frustrated Democrats and friendly Republicans to grill DeVos on the merits of public education, the role of the federal government in civil rights, and her family wealth.

“We are living in a time when people think they are looking for truth, but are being told there are alternative facts and, frankly, we are just trying to show facts,” Chris Burney, a co-producer of the show, said in an interview before the performance. “This is what was spoken, these are the words that were spoken, now that you know what the facts are, how do you engage with them?”

The play, titled simply “The Confirmation Hearing for the Secretary of Education,” was part of “American Scorecard,” a series of dramatic readings of congressional transcripts by actors. Other shows in the series have been devoted to banking, the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and the confirmation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who later resigned.

DeVos’ less-than-smooth performance at her confirmation hearing generated satire on television and social media and marked the start of her rocky tenure. After the hearing, two Republican senators joined the Democratic half of the Senate in voting against DeVos and it was only Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote that secured DeVos the job.

Putting prominent public figures on the stage as part of documentary theater is not new, said Jodi Kanter, a theatre professor at George Washington University. For instance, Anita Hill’s powerful testimony at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991 also inspired a play.

“It can be extremely valuable to people who are trying to make sense of the current political actors and how they got to where they are and what they are up to,” Kanter said.

DeVos’ 3½-hour hearing was condensed to under an hour, with roughly the same time given to Republican and Democratic senators. The play ended with excerpts from a speech DeVos went on to give as education secretary.

DeVos was played by a professional actress while students, selected from educational theater programs, were cast for their roles irrespective of age, gender and race of the character they were playing. Burney said that was meant to symbolize diversity and to amplify what was being said rather than who was saying it.

The play contained some of the most awkward and contentious moments of the hearing, such as DeVos suggesting that guns may help protect rural schools from grizzly bears, and her struggle to distinguish between proficiency and growth when accessing student achievement.

But the producers insist that their aim was not to criticize or ridicule, but to encourage dialogue and understanding.

“We work really hard to make it so it’s not a cartoon or lampoon, but so that everyone who’s involved and every voice that’s heard is respected, so hopefully then people can find what do we share in common,” said Burney.

“We personally did not try to paint DeVos any way, whether it’s a good or bad character,” said Henry Nieopoetter, a high school senior from Maryland. “Whatever the audience thinks they can now decide ‘cause they are now knowledgeable.”

Frank Kirmser, the Broadway producer who conceived the series, said American society has become deeply polarized. In New York, Kirmser said, she has heard people scream “Not my president” in reference to Donald Trump, “but the fact of the matter is, this is our president.”

“So I think we all really need to listen and learn and move forward accordingly,” Kirmser said.

The Education Department did not provide a comment for this story.