With the series of teacher strikes and protests across the country over the last year or so, it is extremely timely that Wyatt Cenac has chosen to tackle the way education intersects with mental health, sex education, the impact of school lunch, labor and immigration in the second season of his HBO series, Problem Areas.
Part documentary and part comedy, Problem Areas centers around a different theme each season and skillfully explores serious and often uncomfortable issues, with a levity that lowers the audience’s defenses and leaves it with a sense of hope. This season, Cenac is touring public schools across the country, exploring the problems in the U.S. education system one episode at a time.
The first episode engages extensively on the subject of labor and thus focuses on teachers. Cenac talks to a number of teachers about the challenges they face from the community and the administration. “It felt like, if you’re gonna talk about education, let’s focus on the educators,” Cenac told Shadow And Act at a press day for the show.“Last year we had teacher’s strikes and this year started off with teacher strikes so it seemed that was a bell that was being rung.”
And yet, Cenac didn’t get a chance to visit all of the school he would have liked to for the show. For that, he blames his foul mouth.
“As evidenced [in this interview], I can’t go too long without saying a curse word,” Cenac told Shadow And Act during a press day for the show. “That was one of the challenges of interviewing kids,” he said. “In one case, I think, we got a whole town to uninvite us! They said it was because I cursed too much.”
That might be, but Cenac believes, in certain cases, the objection to his language was an excuse. “There was one town in the South, and I think ‘cursing’ was coded a bit.”
Indeed Cenac, an actor and stand-up comic in his own right, is also a former writer for The Late Show, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and the animated series King of the Hill, approaches many of his interviews in an unorthodox manner. In the first episode, he randomly asks one educator if she knew what a “manimal” is? The interviewees are inevitably taken aback but go along with the fun. Manimal, by the way, was an eponymous eighties TV show featuring a man who could change himself into any animal in order to fight crime. There is a method to Cenac’s madness, however. “The hope is,” he says, “is that by doing it in this unconventional way, it draws a different set of eyeballs and helps to expand the conversation. The hope is that people don’t get too caught up in the curse words not to see the overall message.”
Wyatt Cenac will talk to anyone and anything to make education Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO
The press day took place at P.S. 149, also called Sojourner Truth School, on Harlem’s 117th Street, just west of Fifth Avenue. A representative for HBO explained that in addition to fitting in with the theme of the second season of Problem Areas, the location was chosen because of a long relationship between the school and HBO. The media company’s Corporate Outreach department conducts a number of programs with the school. HBO employees work with the children in volunteering as well as mentorship roles.
Cenac, who grew up in Dallas and attended Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, the first Dallas school to integrate, revealed that it was much of what he learned doing his show last season that spurred him to take up the subject of education this time. The first season of Problem Areas tackled the issues around policing. He explained, “Part of the reason we decided to look at education was because last season we’d done a few education stories at the top of the show and we found ourselves coming back to this idea of education. It’s such a big part of what goes on in our society. When we look at systemic issues that we talk about in society, there is a role that education- public education- plays in trying to combat some of those social ills. Whether you have children or not, you pay into it and should we have a conversation about this thing we’re all invested in?”
Cenac also admitted doing the series brought to mind some of the weaknesses in his own (very good) schooling. There were still instances that point to systemic issues that plague the American educational system such as the subtle conditioning of Black students to settle for less challenging subjects or lower grades. Cenac recalled a guidance counselor at one point providing school letterhead to help him forge a report card to hide a less than stellar grade from his strict parents. He also remembered a troubling conversation in another instance, when he was upset about a relatively low grade he got. “I think it was during my sophomore year,” he recalled, “and my counselor was like, ‘Hey, it’s not that bad. You’re the smartest of all the Black kids!’” Yikes.
In the course of shooting the second season where he visited schools in ten different cities across the country. Two of the cities he was most struck by were Minneapolis, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa. In Iowa, he explained, “They have an old Ford factory that they’ve converted into a central campus that every kid in the district has access to. And so if you want to take anything from STEM classes to nursing, to TV production to aviation, farming, they all exist in the central campus. That’s a very interesting way to provide something that all kids have access to should they want it.”
“Big Milk” was also a thing, Cenac discovered. In Minneapolis, one school district banded together to rid the schools of chocolate milk. “Minneapolis I think really stood out and surprised me,” he said. “One of the things they did in Minneapolis was they banned chocolate milk in the school cafeteria and they got pushback from the milk lobby, which I had no idea that there was such a thing as ‘big milk!’”
Of course, coming on the heels of the college admissions scandal, there were questions for Cenac as to what insight he gained from doing this series. “It never surprises me that this would exist in college. And that, yeah, rich people will find ways to get their rich, dumb kids in the schools. Rich dumb kids have been getting in schools for years. That’s the one lesson to take away from this: rich dumb kids can get in anywhere!”
Admissions to New York City’s elite specialized high schools was also very much in the news on the day of Cenac’s screening for the press and the topic was brought up during the discussion. The issue comes up every spring when the results of the admissions test come out and there are inevitable discussions about the root causes for the disproportionate number of Black students who make it. Just the day before, the New York Times’ front page reported that out of 895 slots for the freshman class, only 7 Black students made the cut. Many feel it’s a reflection on the culture of the Black families and others, that it is a reflection of a discriminatory and broken system.
Cenac opined, “You know, if there is one magic bullet, it’s if every school had the things that the richest school had, I think you would see [better] outcomes.” He was careful to emphasize that he was referring to the totality of the education experience that wealthy (mainly white) children experience. “Those things aren’t just a financial. You know, it’s representation of teachers. The wealthiest schools have that. We just don’t talk about it, but it’s like, a bunch of rich white kids have teachers that look like them and that does impact them.”
Cenac was also critical of the every man for himself mentality that many parents have when thinking about education. “We’ve allowed ourselves to get caught up in this sort of fighting for scraps of, ‘Well, I just got to get my kid in there’ and that doesn’t benefit everyone.”
“The biggest thing is how do you make sure there is a gold standard? Like, what we have agreed on as a society is that there is a gold standard and not everyone deserves access to it.”
The second season of Problem Areas premieres April 5th at 11 p.m. on HBO.