National Merit – A Bittersweet Lesson about Test-Taking

National Merit at BoHo Theatre,
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By Fran Zell

There’s an ominous new (to me) parking regulation sign I’ve run across recently on my travels around Chicago. “15 MINUTE STANDING ZONE,” it reads in capital letters at the top. “TOW ZONE,” it declares at the bottom. In the middle of the sign is a red arrow and these stringent instructions: “ USE FLASHING LIGHTS 7:30 AM – 9:30 AM, 4:30 PM – 6 PM MON – FRI.”

But what if it’s a Saturday evening, say around 7 pm, and the sign is pointing to a spot across the street from where I am about to see BoHo Theatre’s world premiere of National Merit, a compelling new social issue play by the promising young playwright, Valen-Marie Santos. Can I legally park there? Or will my car be impounded while I’m inside Theater Wit, watching six college-bound teenagers walk an emotional tightrope between their dreams to attend one of the  top colleges in the country and the frightening realities of the dreaded PSAT test that can get them there.

Magdalena Dalzell (as Jenny the teacher’s helper) in National Merit at BoHo Theatre

“Yes, definitely it will be impounded, can’t you read?” Or so Alex/Mr. Alvarez (Juan Gonzalez Machain) would most likely instruct the PSAT prep program teens who are at the center of this sometimes funny, often bittersweet drama set in a classroom at a pricey private school called Westbrook High. Regarding the reading part of the test: You always read the question first and then scour the passage for the answer, he repeatedly advises. If a fact is not clearly stated in the text, then it cannot be the correct answer, according to Alex’s pedagogy.

This is where Arianna (Maddie Powell), his most recalcitrant student, would chime in with the news that there is often nuance and subtext that makes it more advisable to do the reading first and then consider the question, because that way you could hit upon an entirely different answer, or maybe two possible correct answers. So yeah, go ahead and park there, Ariana would most likely conclude because the sign clearly states the hours when the space is a tow zone, so by default, all the other hours must be tow-free.

Alex Rocha (as Cisco) and Maddie Powell (as Ariana) with a pointed question for the teacher in National Merit at BoHo Theatre

None of the foregoing is intended to rewrite Santos’ polished and absorbing script, but rather to illustrate how the societal problem she focuses on in this 90-minute play has far-reaching ramifications in a world growing increasingly less adept with or even interested in critical thinking.

One of the genius aspects of National Merit is how the teens themselves realize they are caught in a trap, aware that they must navigate the system according to rules, which as director Enrico Spada points out in his stage notes, “may not have their best interests in mind.”

Alex Rocha (as Cisco) in National Merit, BoHoTheatre

It’s crazy-making of course, enough to set everyone in the PSAT classroom on edge. As if these kids aren’t already on edge by dint of the usual teenage angst in a dizzying world full of steep parental expectations and ever-changing peer friendships for starters. Plus for the four minority students among them, there is self-doubt born out of living in the shadows of the dominant white culture. Santos does a wonderful job of developing each character in light of the above, quite notably so with the dissolving friendship between the arrogant, white-privileged Jax (Justin Kuhn) and the sensitive Asian-American Yash (Sripadh Pulligilla), who suddenly becomes aware of how unequal their relationship has always been.

And, of course, there is Melissa (Amber Washington), almost stereotypical in the aloof, overly- defensive way she navigates her insecurities about being Black in this exclusive, mostly not Black school. But she certainly becomes a whole, fully-realized character when she painfully unveils her deepest fears to the others about being amongst them.

National Merit at BoHo Theatre

Santos bravely confronts the question of whether an offense against someone who happens to be Black or gay, for instance, is necessarily a racist or homophobic act. Or can it just be a free-floating offense born out of hurt and blind rage? It’s a nuanced question of course, and as Arianna might quickly point out, there is probably more than one correct answer.

The play assumes we all know what a national merit scholar is. I, for one, looked it up and learned that more than 3 million high school juniors take the PSAT each year, of which only about 16,000 will score in the 99 th percentile and become National Merit Semi-finalists, of which only about 8,000 will actually go on to earn $2,500 scholarships from the National Merit Corporation or much larger awards from prestigious colleges hoping to attract top scorers.

A loser’s game to be sure, but as Yash cynically points out, everyone in the room can always hire someone to write their college essay and get into a good school that way. And this, of course, is the kind of moment National Merit director Spada is referring to when he says the play is important “because it keenly examines the way the systems of our world— education, capitalism, meritocracy— pressure and shape young lives.”

National Merit at BoHo Theatre

Santos, who was commissioned by BoHo to write this play, is a recent graduate of Northwestern University. She already has several other successful works under her belt, including Perreo, a drama set in the Miami reggaeton scene, and which was selected for Northwestern’s 2020 Agnes Nixon Playwrighting Festival.

Santos developed National Merit with support from BoHo’s playwright mentor, Dillon Chitto. The company conducted two workshops and three readings of the piece in preparation for its mainstage production, which opened Saturday. August 27. It is BoHo’s first mainstage production under new Artistic Director Elizabeth Swanson.

As for my parking spot dilemma: This was the second time in recent weeks that I parked after hours in one of these ambiguously-marked 15-minute standing zone, tow zone spots. And nothing untoward happened either time. But I recently found a post on the Internet by someone who was not so lucky. So maybe it’s not something to risk again.

Which all goes to substantiate the ultimate lesson of the play as taught by Arianna: In a world that doesn’t have your best interests at heart, sometimes it’s best to choose even what you are sure is the wrong answer, just to keep yourself safely in the game.

National Merit is directed by Enrico Spada and runs through September 25 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago. It is written by Valen-Marie Santos and features Juan Gonzalez Machain, Maddie Powell, Tatiana Bustamante, Alex Rocha, Justin Kuhn, Magdalena Dalzell, Amber Washington, and Sripadh Pulligilla. Tickets are $30 for general admission, $15 for seniors, military and first responders, and $10 for students. Masks required in the theater. For more information, visit bohotheatre or call Theater Wit’s box office at 773-975-8150.

 Photos courtesy of Time Stops Photography (Bari Baskin)


  • Fran Zell

    Fran Zell is a freelance journalist, based in Chicago. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. She also writes plays, short stories, and essays.

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About Fran Zell 12 Articles
Fran Zell is a freelance journalist, based in Chicago. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune. She also writes plays, short stories, and essays.


  1. I would like to point out that the caption under the fourth picture is incorrect. That is not Juan Gonzalez Machain as Alex (which also happens to be mispelled – check the z at the end of Gonzalez), it is Alex Rocha as Cisco.

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