When the going gets tough, this teacher goes to the Comic Strip Live Theater. Jack Freiberger’s new solo show, They Call Me Mister Fry, is a love letter to teachers, based on the true story of his first year as a 5th-grade teacher in South Central Los Angeles. Written by and starring Freiberger, this work combines the optimism of Patch Adams with the gritty reality of an inner-city classroom.
Freiberger’s story begins with his landing a plum job at a private elementary school, something that evaporated when an administrative error surfaced and a minority teacher bumped him from his appointment. Resolutely, this white teacher from Indiana continued to search for a teaching job, ultimately accepting a position in a Los Angeles ghetto school. The rest of this 90-minute piece centers on his baptism by fire in the classroom, as well as a portrait of two troubled students.
Freiberger, an actor and fully credentialed teacher, has many strengths as a performer. He is a great improviser who plays with the audience as if it were a soccer ball. Much of this resembles stand-up comedy but, as Freiberger keeps reminding us, it’s actually about teaching kids, dealing with the system and how he managed to straddle these worlds and earn the trust of both.
This work offers you a chance to see what really goes on—and what can go wrong—in a classroom. Part memoir, part comedy, this show is altogether a coming-of-age story that intelligently captures an instructor grappling with the big issues of education. More significantly, he illuminates the fragility of the teacher-student relationship, and how he ultimately learned that the lynchpin of good teaching is compassion.
Along with his feel-good anecdotes, Freiberger recounts his darkest hour as a first-year teacher. Freiberger, whose alter ego is King Arthur, would sometimes start out his lessons with a funny shtick from Camelot, holding the legendary “ex caliber” (think party balloon shaped into a sword) to get his students’ attention. But when a supervisor visited his classroom one day to observe his lesson, she found his improvised weapon appalling and grounds for dismissal. Thus, Freiberger was promptly removed from his classroom duties and reassigned to “teacher’s jail.” Fortunately, he was later cleared of any serious pedagogical charges and subsequently returned to his classroom.
Like all good comics, Frieberger can shift roles when necessary to reenact a scene. So we get to see him inhabiting a menagerie of characters on stage, including teacher, student, principal, parent, surrogate-parent and more. There is wit to spare, and Freiberger peppers his monologue with all the new lingo in education. He not only gives us a succinct definition of the “No Child Left Behind” bill, but winkingly adds his own credo: No Teacher Left Behind.
This is a must-see show for teachers—or anybody whose life has been changed by a teacher. Go for the humor, the poignant stories or to get an insider’s look at the teaching profession. But by all means, see it—and leave inspired.
They Call Me Mister Fry
Through Dec. 31
Comic Strip Live, 1568 Second Ave.
$12 to $25,
plus $20 beverage minimum
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