Phase Eight Theater Company Delivers Excellent Acting with Superb Direction and Performances

Phase Eight brought the Jacksonville premiere of “Exit Strategy” to the stage on October 3, 2020 to an enthusiastic audience. The company, known for provocative productions, was founded several years ago by JaMario Stills, a Douglas Anderson School of the Arts graduate. He is currently pursuing an advanced degree in directorial studies at Brown University, and Kelby Siddons has agreed to accept the role of Managing Director during his absence. She is well known to theatre audiences as an actress, director, playwright, and teacher. And perhaps now, after hosting the launch of the on-demand streaming of the live production tech expert – but more about that later.

“Exit Strategy” debuted in Chicago in 2014 and was written by Ike Holder, a playwright new to us. He was the winner of a Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for drama in 2017 and has been a resident playwright at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. We would welcome future local stagings of his plays, which include “Hit the Wall” and “The Wolf at the End of the Block.”

Phase Eight’s production was directed by Samantha Corbitt who was assisted by stage manager Arianna Rodriguez, and featured a terrific cast of seven skilled actors. The play is set in Chicago’s underfunded and deteriorating Tumbldn High School, which has been struggling for a long time with the many problems facing today’s inner-city schools. The city government has found a solution: demolition at the end of the school year.

The play begins with a summer office conversation between Ricky (Christopher Watson), an assistant principal and Pam (Brooks Anne Meierdierks), a long-time teacher. It’s Ricky’s job to talk to the staff about the planned closure, and he approaches the topic evasively, but is no match for Pam’s almost lethal cynicism. This was a demanding dialogue, delivered with perfect timing and inflection by the actors.

The scene that follows takes place in the fall in the teacher’s lounge.  Arnold (Jason Collins) has been assigned to develop a plan to announce the closure plans to the students. Luce is a young math teacher who is generally upbeat. He was portrayed by Juan Unzueta (casting which was especially appreciated as his Jacksonville appearances ended when he moved to Atlanta several years ago).

Jania (Erica Villanueva) is a special-ed teacher who will provide a Spanish translation. Sadie (Deltoiya Goodman) is the practical one, who brings rat poison for her classroom.

The discussion turns to action the staff might take. Arnold is the union leader, but has no interest in opposing the closure as a previous teacher walkout was unsuccessful. They agree to Sadie’s proposal for a public march and take to the streets – but the march doesn’t bring changes.

Then one more character – a student – brings hope. Donnie (Tekell Parker) gets into trouble when he hacks the school’s website and replaces it with a fundraiser asking for five thousand dollars for supplies. He’s so successful that instead of being expelled he becomes Ricky’s assistant in charge of seeking public support. Parker’s portrayal is (appropriately -the neighborhood is losing its school) loud, forceful, and determined.

We’re not going to go all the way to the end of the story due to self-imposed spoiler avoidance policy; we will say that we appreciated Phase Eight’s timely issues-based production and the direction and acting was terrific throughout.

About the tech part: We asked Kelby Siddons how the live production with multiple actors in separate locations was recorded for viewing. She replied that video conferencing was used for rehearsals, which included coaching on lighting and backgrounds. The show was recorded in one take with Zoom; splicing was not used. The file was sent to Broadway on Demand, a digital streaming service for access by viewers.

Additionally, Phase Eight hosted an interactive Zoom digital lobby before and after the show, which included question and answer sessions with JaMario Stills and playwright Ike Holder.

Note: On-line access was initially scheduled for October 3 – 4; an extension has been added that allows access anytime for 24 hours Saturday October 10th beginning at 7 pm ET. Additional information is available on their Facebook and website  PhaseEight.org. pages.

If you enjoy excellent acting with superb direction and performances don’t miss it!




About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.