"Do you want to go to a play tonight?" I said to my wife on a recent Saturday. "My favorite thing. Going to the theater," she said.
"It’s off Broadway."
"That’s fine. I like off Broadway."
"Well, it’s sort of off Broadway. More like off-off-off-off-off Broadway. Actually, it’s in Bushwick in Brooklyn."Before she could even think of saying NO, we were out the door to see the Real People Theater’s one hour super condensed version of "King Lear." "Oh. One more thing." I said. "Almost all the actors are students at Bushwick High School."
Thus began our evening at "The Theater."
Real People Theater is the brainchild of Stephen Haff who teaches English at Bushwick HS. Now, it should be pointed out that the Department of Education has deemed Bushwick a "failing" school and is in the process of closing it down, to be replaced by four hot new boutique schools. One of these schools has the theme of "Sailing." In Bushwick where the nearest access to water is when the sewer backs up. Give me a break.
A few years ago Haff found that teaching Shakespeare was not exactly going over with his students. So he started having them perform as a way to stimulate interest. The difficulties with the language of Shakespeare led to student rewrites into a language they could understand. Some might think rewriting Shakespeare is blasphemy. But getting students to spend an enormous amount of time studying Shakespeare so they could change it could be called genius.
Naturally, there was just a just bit of cursing. Haff had the students do some performances in the school. The principal saw one performance and "spoke" to Haff about the cursing. Kids cursing in school! Heavens forbid! There would be no more performances in school. I guess there’s a difference when teachers "allow" kids to curse versus when they do it on their own, which lo and behold, they seem to do an awful lot.
Some teachers might have given up and said "See, you can’t be creative in this system." But Haff just took his show on the road, forming the Real People Theater with current and former students. They have received support from the NY Theater community, in particular The Wooster Group. They have done productions of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Lear and Tough and have performed at the Wooster space in Soho and in California, Chicago, Canada and Bennington College in Vermont, where two RPT actors—-former Latin King gang members—-are enrolled as sophomores. This summer they performed in Germany and are currently working on Milton’s Paradise Lost. (I can’t wait to see what they do with that.) Recently they received an Annenburg grant to pay rent for one year at their own space in Bushwick. This space has become a hangout for the kids from RPT. A place to go. The Bushwick neighborhood doesn’t really have a lot of these.
We arrived at RPT’s new theater space on Hart St. between Central & Wilson. Some young people were milling about outside. I recognized Manny, one of the actors, who is also a fabulous artist and has been doing cartoons for Ed. Notes, the newspaper I put out. We paid our $10 donation and joined about 20 people sitting on folding chairs, benches and milk crates. There was no stage and little separation between actors and audience. People kept milling about as they talked in small groups. All the actors were dressed in their street clothes. The only prop was a crown on Haff’s head. He was playing Lear. Another adult played a role. All the other actors were kids, mostly seniors at Bushwick. Suddenly, the voices got louder and the actors began to move about. The play had begun. It sort of just snuck up on you.
For the next hour we were regaled with a fabulous display of acting. The students had been given control and they added to Shakespeare and subtracted from it. Few of Shakespeare’s words remained and the plot was severely compacted. They even added a character called Tragedy played by an actress who wrote her own part. She read her poem about the state of the world today, urging us to appreciate everything we have and promising a better world will result if we "think positive and have faith." All read while she was holding a 5 week old kitten named Belvedere, recently adopted by RPT as their mascot. Manny impressed everyone, particularly his parents, when he used 3 separate dialects. An artist and an actor. A double threat who has somehow had both talents nurtured in this "failing" school. By the end of the play, the entire stage was littered with dead bodies. Shakespearean tragedies may be the perfect vehicle for kids in Bushwick.
Now, let’s not forget. This entire activity came out of a school that has supposedly failed these kids. A school that will be closed down. A school that has been going through "reorganization" for almost 10 years as one Board of Ed. hack principal after another was sent in to "fix" the school. Naturally, the blame is being placed on the teachers. And the students.
Who really failed the kids? The DOE./BOE for branding entire schools as failures? "Educator/leaders who wouldn’t look beyond the fabulous work many teachers and students do in a difficult environment? School administration after school administration who wouldn’t recognize the genius of the things Haff and other teachers were doing and nurture it?
Teachers were failed too. By their own union leaders in the UFT, who have cooperated with the DOE in the school closing under the guise that they were only trying to make the closing an orderly process so teachers’ rights weren’t violated. But it is clear. The UFT also thinks "failing" schools should be closed.
A few evenings later, a friend and I returned to Hart Street to see RPT’s Poetry Slam. Students from Bushwick HS were invited to read poetry of their own creation. But word had gotten out and a neighborhood crew of rappers showed up to show their stuff. We were treated to a mix of hard core rap that was an awesome display of bravado with an extraordinary usage of vocabulary that would have done the balanced literacy gurus at the DOE proud. No reading from scripts. All memorized. And girls too, a rare sight amongst rappers. All this mixed in with the students from Bushwick HS who read tender love poems. Another night to remember. In a place where kids could gather in a constructive way. A place very different from their school where the fire was ignited by a teacher and nearly snuffed out by the powers that be.