Review: “Fighting Words”



Sydney, played by senior Carolyn Parker-Fairnbain, stands up to her classmates and tells them that even if they don’t mean it, the N-word hurts. The conflict came up after a song they were listening to said the N-word and her classmates sang along without thinking about what it meant.

“You’ll never know how it feels until it happens to you.”

Light illuminates the ten actors standing at the back of the stage. Their expressions show their frustration as they step up one by one to share what words mean to them.  

The introduction to the characters’ opinions kick off the spring play, “Fighting Words.” In a high school setting, a diverse group of students explore the language they use and how these words affect each other. Each student struggled with some form of derogatory language targeting their identity. From racially diverse students to a boy questioning his gender, each character has a unique message.

“We’re taking a look at what happens in a school not so unlike Brookline where we think about the words that we say each other, how they hurt, and our collective relationship to the N-word as it’s used in pop culture,” director and drama teacher Summer Williams said.

Nora (junior Alyssa Parkhurst) gets aggravated when her classmates tell her she shouldn’t have a say in who can use the N-word since she is not Black. She wants to stand up and make a difference, no matter what her skin color is.

In the opening scene, the actors were joined by the Cantico dance group in a dance that showed the anger felt around these issues. Cantico dressed in all black and moved around the stage with sharp movements and clenched fists. The lights flashed many different colors across the stage, giving the dance more urgency.

The play’s story started in a classroom, where the teacher lectured the students on fighting words, or exceptions to freedom of speech. The actors brought energy to the scene, making the characters spunky and talkative as they participated in class. The teacher, Ms. Stevenson, played by senior Noa Petler, had a strong presence on stage. Her loud, clear voice showed how strict she could be.

Ms. Stevenson (senior Noa Petler) talks to Sydney (senior Carolyn Parker-Fairnbain) and apologizes for handling the conflict poorly in class.

The many costumes for each individual character, showing the passing days, helped reveal more about their personality. J, played by sophomore Clay Baker-Lerner, wore bright shirts and had painted nails. When the audience learned he was asking his classmates to call him a more unisex name than his given name, Justin, it was clear without directly saying it that he was questioning his gender.

The set added a thin glaze of simplicity to the show. There were desks lined across the stage when in a classroom setting, staggered to make the stage set more interesting. This allowed the acting and message to stand out.

The show did a standout job of creating real, relatable characters. Short videos scattered between scenes in the performance gave the audience more background on the characters’ struggles. The screen would go dark and a video would be projected on the back of the stage as the actor silently stood in front, looking straight ahead. Though it was not explicitly stated, the characters were responding to a question about a time when words hurt them. These videos were compelling and made the characters even more complex.

The play ended with the characters repeating their snippets from the beginning, now more meaningful to the audience after their stories had been told.

According to Williams,  she and the cast wrote the play with the intention to spark discussion.

“The goal was to make something that was relevant to the conversation that has been in Brookline and to use theater as a means of conversation,” Williams said.

The class sits in silence as they think about what the words they say can mean to someone else. The argument got very heated and each character had their opinion to share.

Senior Shalinee Maitra, who plays Val, a student struggling with perceived racial ambiguity, said that the discussion the play may potentially bring is invaluable in the school’s current state.

“I think racism at BHS is an ongoing conversation,” Maitra said. “It’s a conversation we need to have continuously, and for me, this play is a continuation of conversations that were started around those videos and those events.”

Baker-Lerner hopes that the play they wrote will give a lasting legacy.

“I don’t want [conversations] to stop once we stop performing the play. I want it to live on and people can come back to it and refer to it when they’re having these heavy conversations that we need to have,” Baker-Lerner said.

Though the play discusses these difficult topics, the cast wanted it to force people to think about what should be done as opposed to giving the answers themselves.

“We didn’t want to set up a character who is 100 percent right and someone who’s 100 percent wrong,” Williams said. “We wanted all the characters to be a little multidimensional in that way, and we wanted people to feel challenged by it. The play doesn’t resolve, so there’s not an ending that says, ‘This is how we should do things.’”

The lights dim as the play comes to an close. The end didn’t bring solutions, but allowed insight to all the different sides of the conflict.

The spring play did a great job exploring these issues and bringing them to the attention of the community at the high school. The show left audience members thinking about how they affect others with their words. Even though it was a serious topic, the cast weaved in lots of humor throughout the play. This is a great show about real issues featuring a cast of passionate characters.