For someone who describes himself as a person who makes a living just “trying to make people chuckle,” Wyatt Cenac is doing some pretty heavy lifting. Cenac, who is also an actor (“People of Earth,” “Medicine for Melancholy”), writer (“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “Family Guy”), and stand-up comedian, is in the second season of his HBO series “Problem Areas,” which he both hosts and executive produces. Last Wednesday, April 10, Cenac screened the second episode of this season for an audience in Manhattan, followed by a panel discussion with New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, Brooklyn Research and Service High School Principal Allison Farrington, and advocate Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for Alliance for a Quality Education.
“Problem Areas” is a documentary series that successfully tackles important issues via Cenac’s wry comic touch. Cenac devoted his inaugural season to taking a deep dive into law enforcement and its complicated relationship with communities across the nation. This season, “Problem Areas” takes on public education. Issues examined include teacher pay, mental health, school lunch and school safety, which was the main subject of the episode screened, and discussion.
Cenac shoots the series on location in schools and communities in New York City, West Virginia, Minneapolis, among other states giving a real world flavor to the experiences of his subjects. He holds pointed, if playfully sardonic, conversations with students, community activists, teachers, basically anyone who cares about the school system. Cenac poses questions meant to nudge the viewer toward coming up with real solutions even as he or she laughs at the action on screen.
Cenac started the evening off by commenting, “In the wake of school shootings you hear so many people talk about school safety and arming teachers and getting metal detectors with a sort of lack of awareness to the fact that these type of things have been in Black and Brown schools for a very long time and the outcome of that isn’t safety but criminalization.”
Briefly running her hands through her iconic flaming red curly coils, Hannah-Jones started her reply by admitting it felt a little strange for her to be talking about these issues in front of an audience at the chic, members-only Soho House in New York’s Meatpacking District. “It feels very weird,” she began, “to be having this conversation here but then you mentioned ‘Call your legislator’ and these are the people legislators listen to, so it makes more sense!” She added somewhat conspiratorially, “I had two bourbons before I came up here y’all so I’m gonna keep it real!” Cenac encouraged her, enthusiastically repeating, “Yeah!” as she spoke.
Part of the problem with the idea of school safety, Hannah-Jones observed, “Is that kids shouldn’t have to go through metal detectors to go to school but kids shouldn’t have to live in conditions where people feel they have to have metal detectors in school. We’re placing the burden on schools to address our larger neglected society.”
They discussed some examples of harsh punitive measures commonly exacted on Black and Brown children in America’s public schools in the episode which had just screened. In it, Cenac talked to a child who had been suspended for flatulence, and a parent who spoke with incredulity about her four-year old being suspended from school.
Said Farrington, “We have a system where 90 percent of teachers are white women and before they step into a classroom, most of their training is on classroom management as opposed to building relationships with students. They are already putting themselves in the position to police.”
The girlfriend of a drug dealer as a teen, Farington shared that she decided to go into education after having to flee New York City and attend high school in Vermont when a contract was put out on her life. As a high schooler in Vermont, she saw what education is supposed to be, compared to what she was used to as a student in the New York City public school system. Farrington also revealed her vocation to be not just altruistic but utterly redemptive, soberly stating, “Those two very different experiences helped me realize I had helped destroy a lot of lives here in New York City and it was extremely important for me to go into this work of educating young people in order to restore the community.”
Gripper expanded stating, “It’s also the biases that teachers bring into the classroom. They come into our communities and they judge the kids overly harshly. It’s not that they don’t know how to handle the behavior, they choose to respond differently when it’s us. Because they bring this racism into the classroom, we see a huge disparity in school pushout.”
Cenac spoke directly to the phenomenon of school pushout, pointing to one of the subjects appearing in “Problem Areas” named Carlos. Emphasized Cenac, “Once you’re pushed out, you’re so much more likely to find yourself in front of the law.” After being traumatized at the sight of a classmate being “jacked up” by a police officer, Carlos stopped attending school. Two years later Carlos, then 16, was serving 22 years to life.
“Problem Areas” airs on HBO Friday nights at 11 p.m. and on HBO streaming applications.