An Education in Prudence

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 23, 2018

Th cast of 'An Education in Prudence'
Th cast of 'An Education in Prudence'  

The new play being produced by Open Theater Project at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain offers a clever script to show us the meaning of the old adage "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it."

Stefan Lanfer's "An Education in Prudence" draws on actual events from 1833. In Connecticut, a girls' school's headmistress, Prudence Crandall (Caitlin Gjerdrum), agrees to take on a new student: A local young African American woman named Sarah (Tenneh Sillah). This agitates the good folks of the local community, in particular Mr. Andrew Judson (Jon Vellante), who has vouched for Ms. Crandall's character and qualifications and landed her the position. Despite warnings from Judson and others, Prudence Crandall not only holds to her principles, but presses on in the face of prejudice and racist outrage. When the parents of her white students pull their daughters out of her school -- all except for Sarah -- Prudence opens her doors still wider, accepting African American girls from other states.

The story of Prudence and her school is told through the device of a school tour. History teacher Miss C (Gjerdrum), together with Coach Drew (Vellante), has brought her class to the school on a field trip. The students include the deeply disaffected Julia (Christa Brown), her friend Ann (Shana Jackson), and, along for the ride, her mother, Hope (Regine Vital). As the students tour the old school, now a museum, they are invited by the tour guide (Mary O'Donnell) to participate in a dramatic re-enactment of the events that unfolded there, together with the museum's docent (Kevin Paquette), who leads the way by acting out the part of abolitionist and newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison.

Past and present are bridged as the students and adults involved inhabit their characters and essentially re-live their experiences. They don't seem to need scripts; indeed, at one point, when the angry Julia insists on swapping roles and taking on the role of a lawyer during a trial (the good people of Connecticut outlawed the school), history is re-cast with an edge of modern-day mission and confidence. It's a fantastical twist, but it works. As the play's tag line reminds us, "The past isn't behind us." Or, as one of the young women involved in the re-creation of the school's story puts it, from her contemporary point of view, "I'm sick of being asked for answers to problems that [white people] created."

Lanfer's script possesses an innate power, summoning as it does examples of deceptive language and skewed reasoning that characterized the struggle for equality then just as now. What married gay or lesbian couple won't bite down at the idea -- put forth in the new state law that targets the school -- that the very presence of African Americans somehow, mysteriously, "injures" the majority white residents? What person of color, and what first-generation American, won't flinch at the way African American girls coming to the school from other states in the Union are dismissed as "immigrants?" And who won't hear the dog whistle loud and clear when the noxious idea is voiced that differently-pigmented "races" should never be allowed to intermarry?

This is hardly a triumphant play. It's limned with the weariness and sad frustration of our current age, a time when the sobriquet "social justice warrior" is a slur if not an accusation. But it is a hopeful play. We hear now days that the arc of the universe does not, in fact, necessarily bend toward justice. Lanier, director Pascal Florestal, and this cast of enthusiastic actors disagree, and they'll be happy -- though without shying back from the cruel lessons of history -- to show you why.

"An Education in Prudence" ran from Feb. 9 - 24 at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain. For more information about the production and Open Theater Project, please go to

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.