The Volunteer

 

Claude Johnson, an African-American high school student, is caught spray-painting the lockers in his school gym and made to do community service in a senior home. At first he is angry and resentful. Then he meets Katherine Wood, a  former French teacher who is blind and hard of hearing. They become friends.


Katherine shows Claude there is another world beyond the dangerous and dirty streets where he lives. She gives him lessons in French and teaches him to play the piano. She tells him about her grand-niece, Emily, and her deceased husband, Joe.


For most of the play, Joe remains an offstage voice. Katherine frequently speaks to him, and their conversations reveal the loving nature of the life they had together and how much she misses him.


Claude also becomes friends with three other people at the home – Harry Klein, who talks tough and once owned a shop in New York City’s garment district; Stella Bonafiglio, a slightly confused but amiable woman whose husband opened the first condom factory in Brooklyn; and Sylvia Goldman, who worked in an airplane factory during World War II, and convinced the pilots to teach her how to fly.


Even though Claude is changing, he is still tempted by his friend, Tyrone, who wants both of them to work for Flaco, a neighborhood drug dealer. He is also discouraged when his mother, a single parent struggling to raise her children, finds Joe’s Purple Heart, which Katherine has given Claude, and accuses him of stealing it.


Who is Katherine Wood and why has she taken such an interest in Claude? Will Claude succumb to the influence of the streets or will she make a lasting difference in his life?