An “Office Hour” Appointment to Keep

OFFICEhour circle theatre logo

“Office Hour” is a devastating play. But it’s a play whose questions about race, gender, and social class we should be willing to examine.

This one-act drama—at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth through May 11—may resonate especially strongly with those of us who have already been “schooled” to think about intersectional identities in classrooms. And maybe, even more specifically, with college instructors who teach writing. We know the frustration of hoping to reach a student who has sent signals of being troubled but who seems reluctant to accept our efforts to assist. That was my response to the opening scene, at least, when three professor characters gather to discuss a student. Two veterans of prior courses where the as-yet-unseen student generated concern seem, at first, to be offering caring advice to a younger colleague who has just begun a class where Dennis is enrolled. And indeed Dennis, whom we meet a bit later, during the play’s office hour, has been sending up notable “red flags” in ways that would likely claim the attention of any teacher.

  • He sits, slumped over, in the very back of the room, silent.
  • His writing spews violence and hate.
  • He makes other students in the class feel uncomfortable, threatened even.

One of his two previous teachers asserts that Dennis is now seeking to dole out payback for a much-deserved low course grade by posting message after message depicting his former instructor as uncaring—a bully, even.

But as this conversation continued, I started cringing at some disquieting elements in the two experienced faculty members’ requests to their younger colleague. For one thing, they made veiled yet clear references to the idea that she should be better positioned, in terms of her own identity, at dealing with the problem student than they had been. After all, both she and the student were, well . . . . (Their unsaid but telegraphed point? The instructor they were attempting to enlist and the student they were bemoaning shared race-based identities on the margin.)

For me, that opening scene had now reached a point of invoking a too-familiar pattern those of us working in higher education know well these days: white professors asking a faculty member of color to assume extra responsibility for mentoring a student from an under-represented minority group. Casting ourselves as wanting to help, white educators like me can simultaneously (and conveniently) offer up the excuse that we’ve tried, but that we can’t reach certain students because they can’t/won’t accept us. Rather than being a privilege, our whiteness constrains our effectiveness. So we pass along our concerns to an office on campus where “trained” staff counselors work—that is, we shift the problem to a unit too often carrying such potentially ironic names as “student success” and consider our work done. We’re off the proverbial hook. Or, better yet, we try, as in this scene, to blend comments about certain abilities (and duties?) linked to  minority identity with subtle pressure on a faculty colleague like young Gina in the play. We count on the Ginas in our midst to do the hardest work for us.

office hour at circle theatre
Olivia De Guzman and Alex Vinh in Circle Theatre’s production of “Office Hour”on

Most of the play shifts from this conversation, interestingly depicted as occurring outside, near a bench set along the outer edge of a university building, to the “office” of the  title. And, gradually, we learn that Gina is actually, herself, even more marginalized than we likely realized at first. Besides being a person of color like Dennis, who does reluctantly show up for a required conference with his teacher, she is an adjunct. She points this factor out only mid-way through her persistently voluble efforts to get to know Dennis, to find out why his writing exudes such pain, to support him as a student and as a fellow traveler seeking to navigate the challenges of the dominant culture of academe—white, privileged, closed off to full-fledged entry from the margins.

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Ki Hong Li and Sue Jean Kim in the Off Broadway Public Theater

She confesses, for instance, that several students have already dropped the class due to Dennis’s seemingly menacing silence as linked to the screaming anger of his writing, which they’ve had to encounter directly since the course is a writing workshop. If the class size drops too far, she explains, she won’t get a teaching contract for the next semester. That’s life as an adjunct. Especially, she might have argued, as an adjunct from a minority group, expected to quietly “take it,” if shunted aside. If Dennis is vulnerable, so is she.

sandra oh office hour
Sandra Oh and Raymond Lee in South Coast Repertory’s 2016 world premiere of the play

Gina’s voice—ranging back and forth between efforts to get Dennis to explain himself and long monologues revealing still more constraining elements in her own background—dominates in terms of speaking minutes. But Dennis commands audience attention too, even in the first part of the “office hour,” when he’s not yet speaking at all.

Once Dennis does begin to tell his story, we discover still more connections between these two characters’ experiences and the challenges they’ve been facing. And, if we’re really listening—something Dennis calls on Gina, and through her, on the audience to do—we are probably not surprised by a plot device that could have otherwise come across as ham-fistedly clumsy. The play confronts its audience with a series of “what if?” moments. Several times, a burst of action seems to happen. Then, after a brief black-out, we come back into the brightly-lit dialogue of the cluttered office space and wonder:

  • Did that alternative represent a “real” option considered by a character and discarded?
  • Or just a symbolic reminder of how tenuous human interaction can be, how we’re often right on the edge, just as likely to stumble into tragedy as to negotiate our way out of a potential impasse?

Signs at the entrance into the theatre and comments in the written “Director’s Notes” played a role in preparing us for these “what if” moments. And for the fact that violence—some of it involving guns—would appear more tangibly and visibly than via indirect references to Dennis’s writing. In the end, though, I’d agree with Director Jenny Ledel’s and playwright Julia Cho’s assessments in the Circle Theatre program that Office Hour is “not about guns” or the gunshots that go off on stage.

julia cho
Julia Cho, playwright

More so, I think, it’s offering up an indictment of those of us who most easily escape facing up to what university communities, and the larger culture, do to people like Gina, child of immigrants who have struggled to enact an “acceptable” identity in a less-than-welcoming America, or Dennis, whose body, he says, carries a long, painful history of enduring bullying of multiple kinds.

By the end of the play, we’ve seen some of that bullying up close—both the overt, most physically intimidating type and more subtle forms. And we should ask ourselves what we could do to address the personal and also the institutionalized, cultural-level dimensions of these fraught relations that, the play reminds us, are dangerous for everyone, on moral as well as bodily grounds.

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