Cain’s ‘Stand-Up Tragedy’: Survival Amid Evil

The Nativity Mission School is not like other schools.

Jesuit-run, it has a full-time enrollment of 43 kids (grades 6-8), a full-time faculty of nine. Its doors are open daily from 7:30 in the morning until 10 at night. Every summer, the whole school spends a seven-week “working vacation” at Lake Placid. After graduation, the school pays the students’ tuitions to private high schools or gets them scholarships, offers daily tutoring and helps with college placement. The cost per family is $10 a month.

“It’s a wonderful place,” said playwright Bill Cain, who taught at the school for four years. Situated in a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side, it is an environment he describes as “bursting with life. You can open your window and watch little kids of great beauty playing fantastic streetball--and at the same time you’re watching drug sales, hookers going up and down the block, the vestiges of the old Jewish neighborhood and a constant basketball game going on in the park. It’s an incredible stew.”

In his “Stand-Up Tragedy” (at Taper, Too), Cain tells the story of his experiences in that world--most specifically, of the relationship between a teacher and his 13-year-old student, who struggles to transcend both an abusive family and the surrounding world of drugs, gangs and violence.


“The play talks about the idea of an ecology of evil,” said Cain, 40. “There’s a lot of evil around us: the dropout rate, drugs--whatever. For the most part, we live in balance with it. But what happens if somebody upsets that balance? Whenever anybody would attempt to help one of the hookers working in front of the school, she’d be beaten by a pimp. So do you live in that ecology without upsetting it--or do you say, ‘I’m gonna unravel this sucker, get to the source’? The play follows that journey.”

Equally important are the journeys of the individual students.

“My relationships with the kids continue,” Cain said proudly. “The real kid in the story became my godson while I was there. He went on to art/design school for a year, then dropped out. But since then, he’s been doing great. He got a job at St. Mark’s Comics. He knows everything about them, so he’s really in his milieu. It’s perfect for him.” As for the inevitable failures, Cain said softly, “You don’t reconcile them. It still hurts. But you stay with the kid; he stays a part of you and how you live your life.”

The playwright (whose material springs from diaries he’s kept for 17 years) has dramatized the material in a decidedly offbeat fashion--with a storytelling technique that mimics stand-up comedy, an original rap score and “lots of dancing.” Ron Link, who staged the stylish “Bouncers” and “Shakers,” is directing--with three of his “Bouncers” stars: Jack Coleman, Dan Gerrity and John C. Cooke.


Cain, who left the Nativity school a year ago on good terms (and doesn’t rule out the possibility of a return), has since directed “Twelfth Night” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; he’ll stage “Two Gentlemen of Verona” there later this year. “It’s hard to figure out--how to put together theater that’s on the cutting edge of life,” he said. “You know some of the South African theater that’s been around: ‘Sarafina,’ ‘Asinamali’? Somehow they’ve found a way to combine talking about truly essential issues of their lives with theater. That’s what I’m looking for.”

In the telling of this story, Cain sees himself as observer only.

“I try to be fair to everybody in the show,” he said slowly. “Everyone there is telling the truth. It isn’t like there’s one person who has the answers, who’s the standard-bearer. The teacher offers the kid skills; the kid offers the teacher his own world. I guess my position in the play is my admiration for the boy, my desire to see him--or anyone like him or like us--live a life that’s powerful and passionate . . . without being killed by the passion.”

Cain, who brought his street-comedy background of juggling and storytelling skills (he also studied in 1972 with a Santa Barbara group called the Royal Liechtenstein Circus) to his seven years running the Boston Shakespeare Company, believes “Stand-Up” offers theatergoers a healthy shake-up.

“I think most of us lead deprived lives,” he shrugged. “With an education behind us and some bucks in our pockets, we live fairly rarefied, slightly uninteresting lives. We hurl ourselves into our professions, our professional lives. Not a lot of people live in a neighborhood anymore, or have interests that go much beyond their doorsteps. In this neighborhood, there are Hispanics and whites, lots of artists. There’s also a great sense of community, of communal life. It’s risky, scary most of the time. But it’s life.