Over the past decade, as he has emerged as one of the most dynamic actors in Boston theater, Maurice Emmanuel Parent has left his mark on a lot of roles.
In “Mr. Parent,” a deep-from-the-heart solo show now premiering at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Parent explores an experience that left a mark on him: his five-year stint as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools.
It adds up to a moving, sometimes funny account of what it takes to be a teacher, what it takes to fulfill your ambitions in the theater, and what it takes build a life. A strength of “Mr. Parent” is that it doesn’t try to downplay the tradeoffs involved in that juggling act or tidily resolve its inherent tensions.
Parent’s between-two-worlds existence — teacher by day, actor by night — is one that many theater professionals can identify with, and he brings all of his skill to capturing the complexity of that situation. He also brings a lot of himself. “Mr. Parent” is a very personal show, and not just because it is rooted in his own story.
Indeed, when Parent spoke near the end of Sunday’s matinee about his bond with students from disadvantaged backgrounds and his guilt over leaving “a space where I could do so much good to dress up in costumes and play pretend for money,” he shed tears, and in those moments he did not appear to be acting. At the curtain call, Parent was still wiping his eyes.
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who helped conceive the play, “Mr. Parent” was written by veteran playwright Melinda Lopez with Parent. Lopez wrote and performed in a superb solo drama of her own, “Mala,” and that’s reflected in the generally sturdy craftsmanship of “Mr. Parent,” notwithstanding a certain choppiness to a few of the play’s transitions and an underdeveloped feel to a couple of scenes. The latter could be a consequence of the amount of ground “Mr. Parent” tries to cover. Lopez and Parent put a big frame around his experiences while also incorporating details of how, for instance, the time demands of his dual careers created complications in his relationship with a guy identified as Brad.
Any discussion of the Boston school system necessarily has to delve into the issue of race, and “Mr. Parent” touches on the desegregation of the schools brought about by court-ordered busing in the mid-1970s, as well as the racial and social inequities that remain embedded in the system of funding for schools across Massachusetts. The vast majority of his students, Parent says, were from families living below the poverty line.
“Mr. Parent” focuses, too, on the inherent challenges of teaching, of “being human in a system that demands the Superhuman.” To Parent, the classroom was a stage of a different kind, with its own set of draining demands, and it required him to play roles of sorts. At first, because he “thought [he] could be — I don’t know — more than a theater teacher. A friend,” he was the warmly companionable “Mr. Maurice.” When he realized that being a teacher required sometimes being a disciplinarian, he became “Mr. Parent.”
His school was mainly populated with students of color, while Parent was sometimes the only Black person at the rehearsals he hurried to after school. The city’s reputation as an inhospitable place for Black people is reflected in Parent’s description of his reaction when he was offered an audition here, after years of trying to gain a foothold in New York theater: “Boston? Hell no, it’s racist up there.”
But he gave it a shot once he learned what the play was: Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” where he played Belize, a gay Black man who is “Unapologetic. Driven.” Still, Parent was jolted to learn that his salary would be only $279 a week. Burdened by debt from his student loans and the need to make a living, he sought to put a more solid financial floor under his feet by teaching.
Among the most compelling parts of “Mr. Parent” are those occasions when Parent’s two worlds collide. It can be funny, as when a seventh-grader sees his script for Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy’' and hollers to his classmates “Mr. Parent’s in a porno!” And it can be dead-serious, as with his description of the time a shooter began firing into homes and cars in the neighborhood, forcing the school into lockdown.
That evening is to be the first performance of Katori Hall’s two-character drama “The Mountaintop,” in which Parent is playing Martin Luther King. In his classroom, he takes control and keeps the students calm and unafraid during the crisis (”I’ve never been more proud to be Mr. Parent than I am on this day”), and texts the theater to say he is “running late.” After the lockdown is lifted, the students run off into the street, heading home.
“No armor, no helmets,” Parent says, emotion swelling. “Just backpacks and sneakers. Just children. I walk to the train and ride to the theater. When I get there, Mr. Maurice just breaks down.”
By Melinda Lopez with Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Conceived with and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. At Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Feb. 6. Tickets $25-$75. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com