Timely school drama takes Philly stage

Chicago playwright Ike Holter — a resident writer of Victory Gardens Theater and a member of The Inconvenience, a company he started with friends in 2008 — is not a man to take drama lightly.

The author who once said, “I am black and I am gay, but the minute that I only write work that is about being that, I don’t think that’s interesting,” doesn’t muck about when it comes to bracing subjects such as adversity against those who try to make a difference. His subject could be people running school systems or those struggling to keep their freedoms free.

Holter says he has a different theme song, depending on the day of the week.

“The song that keeps coming back to me when I think about, say, ‘Exit Strategy,’ is ‘Love Has Fallen on Me’ by The Rotary Connection,” Holter said. “I remember first hearing it when writing the initial draft of ‘Exit Strategy,’ and it comes into my mind a lot during the end of the play. It’s a piece that reflects a lot of the most potent themes of the play, and it’s got a great, lush finish.”

In his upcoming “Prowess,” he looks at his adopted city in the heat of summer shootings and some of its most passionate heroes. His “Hit the Wall” takes a running leap into the heightened reality of the Stonewall Riots. In “Exit Strategy” — a play making its Philadelphia debut with the Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre next week — a handful of teachers within the Chicago Public School System kick against the powers trying to render them ineffective.

Holter has a thing for cities, for moments, rife with turmoil. When it came to portraying the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 in Greenwich Village, Holter chose to show the perspective of Stonewall from the people of color involved.

“It was important to have perspectives from trans, women and even the people outside of the riot. So often we hear ‘one story’ about Stonewall when, in fact, it’s the story of many, many different sects of outcasts who were united at random.”

Holter has made Chicago’s issues and the rich mosaic of its people into his art form. He said the city is “one of the most fascinating, beautiful, intensely textured and deeply political and brave places in the world.” The theater community there is “incredibly familial and welcoming. The people are there to build lives, and they really like helping other people out. They taught me how to work fast, work quick, be good to people and worry about crafting a show, not trying to appeal to every single eye.”

Before pointing out the currency of law-enforcement ills facing Chicago’s young African-American population, Holter pragmatically noted how every city has it highs and lows, and how it is crucial to look at them through the prism of art.

“Nobody wants to be preached to,” he said. “Someone going through hell doesn’t want to sit and see a screaming docudrama telling them how crazy their life is; they want to see people with goals and dreams and intense moments, people who laugh, people who change, just like anybody else. I set a lot of work in Chicago because it’s my home, and also because the people there have strong backbones.”

Teachers and administrators in particular, Holter said. Based around the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012 — “terrifying and empowering and illuminating and a million other things,” Holter said — “Exit Strategy” looks at how teachers, students and administrators deal with loss: how they hang on, or how they fall apart.

“The play has many characters who are teachers, but one of its central characters is an administrator,” Holter said. “He’s in the middle of this sprawl, and we follow his decision to finally step up. I wanted to find a viewpoint into the story that we don’t usually see, and we see him weave in and out of these storylines.”

In light of Philadelphia’s own school problems, Holter acknowledged he’s spoken to many within and without the scholastic bureaucracy and proffered that this city won’t go down without a fight.

“I’m sorry to see this intensity brewing but glad people in the Philadelphia community are speaking out about it.”

“Exit Strategy” runs through Feb. 28 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.