Exit Strategy: A Play

Exit Strategy: A Play

by Ike Holter


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Righteously angry, riotously funny, and wise to the tensions between abstract policy and lived experience, Ike Holter's play Exit Strategy centers on vivid, unforgettable characters struggling to maintain faith in a vocation that is being determinedly undermined.

Drawing from the headlines, Exit Strategy is set in Chicago and tells the story of a fictional public high school slated for closure at the end of the year. Despite funding cuts, bureaucrats run amok, apathy, and a rodent infestation, a small, multiracial group of teachers launch a last-minute effort to save the school, and put their careers, futures, and safety in the hands of a fast-talking administrator who may be in over his head. The tenuous situation also raises fears and anxieties among students, and within the volcanic neighborhood that is home to the school. 

Holter has said that Exit Strategy was inspired by the 2013 mass closure of forty-nine Chicago public schools, which displaced nearly 12,000 children—the majority of directly impacted students were African American and Latinx. Hailed as "riveting," "sharp," and "richly metaphoric" by critics, the play indicts how we educate our children in big American cities, and shows why gaps between haves and have-nots continue to grow.

Exit Strategy is one of seven plays in Ike Holter's cycle of works set in Chicago or Chicago-inspired neighborhoods. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810138834
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2018
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 596,664
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

IKE HOLTER has emerged from Chicago's independent theater scene as one of American theater's most exciting young artists. Holter's breakthrough play Hit the Wall was first presented at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2012. The production established his reputation for exquisitely written dramas featuring multigenerational, multiracial casts. His other produced plays include LoomB-Side Studio, The Wolf at the End of the Block, Sender, Prowess, and The Light Fantastic. Holter is a resident playwright at Victory Gardens Theater and the 2017 winner of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for drama.

Read an Excerpt


Exit Strategy


Ricky. Assistant principal. Casually professional head-case with a mile-aminute mouth.

Pam. Old-school educator without a second to spare. End. Of. Her. Rope.

Arnold. Former nice guy turned stone-cold teacher. Lost something.

Luce. Ex-frat boy turned math teacher. Everybody's right-hand man.

Sadie. Assertive educator. Positive foot forward. Till she trips.

Jania. The youngest teacher in the room. Survived the toughest stuff. Acts like it.

Donnie. Student. Spits out words like hand grenades and holds nothing back.


Somewhere in Chicago. A crumbling public school.

NOTE: A slash mark ( / ) in a character's speech means another character has already started their next line; it's an overlap, and both characters are speaking at the same time. An ellipsis (...) in lieu of speech indicates that the characters exchange something silent and necessary. Parenthetical speech means the character is speaking at a (low volume).



RICKY: So you know what's great / about —

PAM: Stop.

Please. Stop. Just, just, just don't. OK? OK? I mean, you're already so far ahead, Vice, come on: Just Please Please Please. Stop. The. Bullshit.


RICKY: I was going to ask if you enjoyed the cake.

PAM: ...

RICKY: The, the cake? ... The, uh, the chocolate cake. It's big, it's in the lounge, it's really, really uh I mean it's large, very, very uh ... so I was / just asking if —

PAM: What the fuck are you talking about?

RICKY: This afternoon, I went to the Jewel and I picked up the cake, the big cake — it's chocolate, it's in the lounge right now and it's got the logo on it: "Go Tigers," right, (Go Tigers), uhhhh ...

I was just wondering if you enjoyed it, I was just wondering if you had a taste; 'cause this, you know, this-is-supposed-to-be-a-fun-little-get-together.

PAM: ... Chocolate?

RICKY: Chocolate-chocolate, two different kinds, actually. Or maybe just double?

PAM: You picked it out?

RICKY: I (well) I actually designed it, / actually —

PAM: You picked it out —

RICKY: I picked it out, yes, / that's what I did —

PAM: So, you went all the way to Jewel, you grabbed a big cake, you put it right in the middle of the teachers' lounge for us to, what, exactly, to just munch on?

RICKY: Welllllll, / sure, I mean —

PAM: For us to just "dig in," huh, really just / "chow down" and what not, right?

RICKY: I mean, it's pretty good, and who / doesn't like chocolate, right?

PAM: Just sit around the table and stitch and bitch with the gym teachers and that stupid secretary with the fake tits and the idiot janitor — you just went out and got us a nice big cake so we can just hunker down on the dog days of summer and "have a fun little get together," is that it, Vice, is that your big goddamn idea?

RICKY: You can just call me Ricky —

PAM: I respect authority.

RICKY: OK, Pam, OK, see, OK, see there's where you're wrong there, see, uh, I'm not I'm not the authority and to be perfectly honest —

PAM: You saved me for last because out of all those sharks swimming over there I'm the one who scares you the most — that's perfectly honest, isn't it?


PAM: The cake's fine. I had a piece. Nice office.

RICKY: Ohmygod, uh, ohmygod, thank you, Pam, thank you very /much —

PAM: You're gay?

RICKY: Uh ...

PAM: Figured as much. Nice office, like what you've done with the place ...

RICKY: I actually don't discuss sexual politics in the workplace —

PAM: "Sexual politics": what, are you screwing a lobbyist or something?

RICKY: I mean my personal life, I mean my private life, I mean / my reality —

PAM: Jesus Christ this is boring, I don't care. When's the Band-Aid coming off?

RICKY: The —

PAM: Look, 'bout twenty-five years ago we had a dog, beautiful collie or something, nice-looking animal liked to chase squirrels and shit on the Sunday Times, family friend till the end, all that jazz, all that, anyway one summer it died, sad times in suck city "boo-hoo-hoo," so it bit the big one, right, but you know what I did? Well, I'll tell you what I did, Vice. See before my kid got home from baseball, I went and got ice cream, I went and got a cake, I went and planned ahead, so that when my kid came home I had enough distractions to take away the feeling of that Band-Aid ripping off when somebody finds out that a semi-truck turned Sparky into rat food.

RICKY: Jesus Christ —

PAM: He's not here, honey, it's just you and me now, kid, you and me, and you didn't bring me down here to chit-chat with the Vice without some Band-Aids coming off. Hit me.


PAM: Hit me.

RICKY: OK! Pam. The, the negotiations didn't go as smoothly as we expected.

PAM: Negotiations? What negotiations?

RICKY: OK, OK, well, for the last — well, since forever, really, uh, the school board has been making an active case to the city about the necessity and the strength behind keeping Tumbldn open but / since the last meeting with —

PAM: Yeahyeahyeahyeah I know, I know. What I don't know is why you'd call a one-way conversation with the city a negotiation. That's just a really interesting turn of phrase right there, Mr. Vice, it's interesting. Sorry. English teacher. Had to point it out. Twenty-two years, hearing the crap that comes outta kids' mouths twenty-two, sorry, twenty-three years, and still, whenever I hear something that grits my gear I gotta say, "Let's look at that, let's examine that." I mean slang's one thing, sure, but completely rearranging the English fucking language so that you can lie, to me, well then I gotta say something —

RICKY: They're closing the school. The end of the year. Low test scores, unfavorable conditions. Lots of — lots, of lots, of lots of stuff. No way around it. Locks on the doors, day after the last day of school, it's done, it's set, it's structured, irreversible. It's over.

PAM: That's it?

RICKY: That's, that's, that's a lot, Pam. That's, that's a lot of information. So / I thought —

PAM: Let us down easy, let us down quick. I get it Vice, I get it — but that's it? No blood, no guts, just tears and chocolate cake, chocolate-chocolate cake. This is it?

RICKY: People have been in and out of this office, all night, in tears —

PAM: Was it Arnold? Did he cry? I bet he did, oh Arnold, Arnold's just a little bitch, / isn't he?

RICKY: I'm here to offer you guidance and support. This is new, this is large, this is a shock —

PAM: I'm a Chicago fucking teacher, nothing shocks me, you stupid prick — nothing-shocks-me. Forty percent of our seniors graduated last year, Vice. One could say that I had a feeling. There's a gang that operates out of that 7-Eleven on the corner, they knock into me when I'm picking up smokes, sure, I had an inkling. There are twenty computers. For three thousand kids. Leaks. Holes. Even the paint's trying to run away from this place, Vice, even the paint. Nobody's having a good time here.

RICKY: Well, you know what, we tried —

PAM: No, we tried, we fought, we struggled, and we struck. Vice, we did that, with picket lines and moms making signs and arm over arm over arm, we did all that, we tried with all that, but during all that way back, where the hell were you?

RICKY: We, we we we need to talk about next steps for you —

PAM: "Because you-you-you-you care?"

RICKY [the first crack]: Because I'm trying to but everybody told me not to not to with you because you're always going to act like a crazy old bitch, I'M TRYING ... I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I, I, I,/ I, I — PAM: That's the first honest thing you've told me all night, don't apologize for that ... I have a contingency plan. Little while back? Before the neighborhood picked up, back when it was just brown and black, before Trader Joe's? I looked around at all this, just looked around at all this and I said, "You know what? Pam. You gotta get a second act." I've made peace with that. You, on the other hand. Vice Vice Vice. What the hell are you gonna do?

RICKY: ...

PAM: Oh man. You never even thought about you, did you? Oh, / oh, oh man. Oh man.

RICKY: This is about the — this is about the teachers that that work in this school / so —

PAM: Which is closing —

RICKY: Which means —

PAM: Which means you're out of a job, what the hell's gonna happen to you kid? Oh man, oh man — you know computers?

RICKY: Uh. "Do I?" Yeah, yeah, sort of, / yeah, yeah, enough —

PAM: Know computers, word of advice, that's all they want, that's all they care about. You good on phones?

RICKY: I mean sure, / why not, Pam —

PAM: There's a call center? Over north (write this down), call center called Industrial Excellence, tell 'em Pam sent you —

RICKY: Well OK, that's very nice of you, Pam, thank you very much —

PAM: No problem. How big's your dick?

RICKY: How big, sorry, WHAT?

PAM: Well, if the computer programming thing and the telemarketer thing don't work out, you can get some johnnys to jack you off on the big gay internet. Come on, / I'm trying to help you out here, come on —

RICKY: OK, OK, OK, I got it, GOT IT — PAM: Jeepers.

[PAMtakes out a cigarette.]

RICKY: Actually —

PAM: Actually what, you little prick? Actually what what —? My husband's dead my kids don't speak to me I live in a shitty little duplex two miles from this two bit blackhole and right now you're telling me I'm gonna spend the last thirty years of my life working for another shit-eating creep at another two-bit black hole so now what, what, what are you going to "actually" me about right here, right now — look me in the eye, Vice, what?

RICKY: Actually ... a lady never lights her own cigarette.

[RICKY pulls out a lighter, lights her smoke. Takes out one for himself, smokes.]


PAM [singing]: Tigers, hear us, Tigers, fear us.

Tigers, Tigers, we're true blue ... Tigers, hear us, don't come near us, we are Tigers through and through —

RICKY: We are Tigers, a-do-do-do ...

PAM: You don't even know the fucking / words, do you?

RICKY: I have no clue, no clue / at all actually —

PAM [chanting]: Tigers, Tigers, mighty mighty Tigers! Stand together, moral fiber — come on kid, pick it up / come on, that's the ticket, that's the ticket —

RICKY: Stand together, moral fiber —

PAM AND RICKY: Tigers, hear us, don't come near us, we are Tigers through and through

PAM [rapid fire, with scary determination]: 'Cause Tigers do what Tigers do, we stand so tall the chosen few and through it all we never fall we waste 'em all with wherewithal don't make us stop we never do we never do we never do ... Tigers, hear us, Tigers, fear us, Tigers, Tigers, blahblah fuck it.

RICKY: You've been to a lot of pep rallies, I take it!

PAM: Imagine that —

RICKY: (I cannot), well there's gonna be more, before we're done, homecoming, coupl'a weeks, uh, spring fling, after that; we've still got the year, and don't worry about me, I've, I've got it covered, uh, I'm gonna apply for everything, or maybe go back to school, again, or or maybe put both of those together, so there we go. Yeah. There we go. That's a second act.

PAM: Mine's better.


RICKY: You're not half as scary as most of the people say you are.

PAM: I bet that took a lot of courage for you to say, / didn't it?

RICKY: I'm actually terrified right now, my heart is beating so fast, wooooo. Why. Um. Why do you hate this school so much, Pam? Just — just tell me. Let me — let me try to help.

PAM: I love this school more than I love myself — don't you ever, ever, ever think anything else. And I need you to know that,Vice. Ricky, Ricky, I need you to know that. I need you to know that, / I need you to know that, I need you to know that.

RICKY: All right, all right, yes, OK! OK. OK. You've just got a funny way of showing it.

PAM: Well. You don't have to like somebody to love them.

RICKY: Can I take a second and think about / that one please?

PAM: Take all the time in the world, all of it, just take it all, take it all. I ... I don't have any more fucks to give.

[PAM grabs her things to exit.]

RICKY: Pam? You've been right next door, for three years —

PAM: Twenty-three.

RICKY: Well, three years for me — you've been right next door, and we never even said hi.

PAM: ... Hi.



RICKY: Knock when you get in.

PAM: What?

RICKY: Just knock on the wall when you get in. I mean, come on, right, come on: Just so I know you made it back OK.

PAM: I'll knock.

RICKY: Such a long trip, right!

[PAM exits. RICKY takes a second. We hear two knocks from next door. RICKY knocks back. Goes back to his papers ... In the next room, we hear a gunshot.]

RICKY: ... Pam.


september 3, 7:30 P.M., Teachers' Lounge

[ARNOLD turns on the lights in the Teachers' Lounge. It looks like a piece of shit. Turns on the coffee maker. Goes back to the mailboard and takes down the pam morse marker. Takes all of the papers inside of it, rips them up.]

LUCE [entering]: Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygoooooooooood. The one time I try to be first, the-one-time I get here early — the only time I ever ever take a cab here just to be first on the ground and look at that, look who's here, Mafucking Arnold mafucking Reese, hahahaha, fucking Arnold Reese, how the hell are you man what up what up what up sir how you doing pound 'em out.

[LUCEraises his hand for a fist-pound, expecting. He does not take it down.]

ARNOLD: Hi, Luce.

LUCE: Don't leave me hanging, / man.

ARNOLD: Leave you / what?

LUCE: Hanging, here, I'm hanging right now don't leave / me hanging, man.

ARNOLD: What are you / doing?

LUCE: I'm giving you daps.

ARNOLD: You're giving / me what?

LUCE: That's all I want I'm just giving you daps giving you props / showing you love —

ARNOLD: OK, I want something too, Luce, / OK —

LUCE: Hit me man, / hit me.

ARNOLD: I want this meeting to go smoothly, and quickly, and correctly. I don't want any catching up, I don't want any side-talk, I don't want any questioning of my intention, any questioning of my authority ... I don't want — and I cannot stress this enough — I don't want any, any, any one of you people to even think of asking me what I did with my summer!

LUCE: Why / not?

ARNOLD: Because it's a big fucking secret, so deal with it. Don't need it, don't have room for it: I want a little bit of respect, Luce. That's all I want.

LUCE: OK, wow. Wow wow wow, OK. Duly noted, totally, totally noted. [Finally putting his hand down.] Arnold?


LUCE: I'm really, really sorry. About —

ARNOLD: Don't be sorry. Hey. "Gimme some daps."

LUCE: Uh, I think we may be kind of past that / now.

ARNOLD: No come on, I told you what I wanted, what you want is easy, come on: "Gimme some daps."

LUCE: You're really freaking me out, dude.

ARNOLD: Nothing to be scared of, I'm here to serve, happy to oblige.

LUCE [hesitantly]: OK. Check it out. This is some new-new-now stuff right here, so I'll just start it out slow —

[ARNOLD knows exactly what this handshake is. They do an intense handshake that is equal parts Hood and Frat-House; it is LONG and it ends with a slow slide and instantly they exclaim together.]

ARNOLD AND LUCE: "Pop it in. Pop it out. Pop it up. Let it shout."

ARNOLD [starting to exit]: So much fun we're having / already, look at that, look at that —

LUCE: Whoawhoawhoa / whoawhoawhoawhoa ... Dude, how the hell did you learn that?

ARNOLD: I invented that, when did you catch on?

SADIE: Back at it one more time and here we go, / here we go: "Hi honey hi hi hi."

LUCE: Sadie! What up what up what up!

SADIE: Hi, how you doing Arnold?

ARNOLD: We start as soon as I get back, / no stop, no stops this time.

[He's gone.]

SADIE: Well hello to you too. (I can't even with him / right now I can't even.)

LUCE: How you doing girl? Looking good! Looking good with those Aldi bags, / OK!

SADIE: You hear about the mice? / You HEARD about the mice, you heard.

LUCE: Ohmygod, Sadie, the mice were like two months ago. The mice are gone, they got the exterminator / in here.

SADIE: No they didn't —

LUCE: Yeah they did / they told us —

SADIE: They wanted the exterminator but then the toilets busted over fourth of July and they got the plumber, there's no exterminator, so tonight I went out and I got this —

[SADIE slams a tab of mousetraps on the table.]


LUCE: Uh, I would guess it's the same woman who puts rat poison in the same bag with FOOD FOR PEOPLE, / that's gross, Sadie, gross —

SADIE: Nonono, those fuckers gotta die, you know my friend Tina was / the one who found it, YOU KNOW —

LUCE: Yesssss, god Sadie YES we allllll / know about crazy paranoid Tina —

SADIE: Sitting in the caf, minding your own business, opening up some hot lunch and what you get, (what you get) "maybe some hot dogs maybe some nachos," oh no, surprise, YA GOT MOUSE SHIT IN YOUR NACHO DIP, / that's what you got, that's what's happening, not this time —

LUCE: I don't even eat nachos anymore after that, I mean ...


Excerpted from "Exit Strategy"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ike Holter.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Exit Strategy,

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