February 28th, 2011 § 0 comments

This past Friday evening, I attended the Waterbury CT Arts Magnet High School’s production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a production that had been debated, then delayed, and about which I had been fairly vocal in my advocacy. The students acquitted themselves quite admirably, but the real discovery came during the post-performance discussion, which included the entire cast, as well as the actors Eisa Davis and Frankie Faison.

The most revelatory comment of the evening did not pertain to the “n-word” controversy that had threatened to shutter the show. Instead, what made me really sit up and think was a comment from one of the students, in response to a general question about how working on the play affected them.

“We don’t get material like this every day,” said the young man (whose name I didn’t catch because I was busy relaying the discussion via Twitter). “We’re the MTV generation. We’re bombarded by trash.”

I do not know anything about this young student actor, but this was certainly the first time I had heard an inner-city high school student, albeit one at an arts magnet school, make a statement that heretofore had emanated mostly from the mouths and pens of pundits (amateur and professional) older than I am. And in those few words, the universal value of this production was conveyed, moving beyond the focus on a single word that is heard only in passing in the play’s dialogue.

As someone whose high school theatre experience ran to Don’t Drink the Water and Bye Bye Birdie, I never had the chance to explore a difficult work. As a once-aspiring actor, I was never challenged to “up my game” on the stage, by taking on a difficult challenger like Wilson or Miller. We read Albee in English class, although shorn of any context that would have truly revealed The Zoo Story to us, but when it came to putting on a show, the material catered to whatever youthful skills we may have had, rather than advancing them.

How many high schools not only allow, but push their kids to grapple with great works? Yes, we can make jokes about a 17-year-old Willy or Linda Loman, and it’s highly unlikely that the performers will ever reach the true core of these characters. But by playing against someone greater than themselves, they discover the challenge that is acting, even if the auditorium is not as full as it might have been had Cats been on offer.

As for the trash that bombards kids? We are all bombarded by it. As I write, much of America is focused on dresses from the Oscars or watching the sad spectacle of Charlie Sheen’s self-immolation. If this is what is served up for adult consumption as morning news, I truly cannot imagine the messages and media consumed by high schoolers, middle schoolers, even elementary school kids today. And while most thoughtful people perpetually decry the dumbing down of cultural conversation, the debasement of entertainment, we do our youths no favor if we simplify their education, be it in the name of in loco parentis, ticket sales or budgets.

What I was pleased to hear on Friday evening is that there are kids who realize the potential effects of what schools and society at large offers them, and they hunger for more. We underestimate the capacity and the appetites of younger minds at their own peril, since not every student goes to an arts high school, not every student is drawn to work by artists like August Wilson (let alone forced to defend its place on school stages in front of a board of education).

I do not advocate this type of work because of its potentially problematic language or content, but because of its larger ideas which belong in the classroom, at our dinner tables, and in our daily lives. We cannot allow the simplistic, sound-bite, lowest common denominator offerings that pass for entertainment become the standard, lestIdiocracy become first prescient, then prevalent. Let’s keep firing metaphoric fastballs at students and let them struggle to hit them back, because it is in that struggle in which they learn the most.

A final word. During Friday night’s post-show discussion, an older woman stood up and identified herself as someone who had attended the school board meeting at which the fate of Joe Turner was decided, and confessed that she had been opposed to the production but that after seeing the show, she felt differently. “I’m 72 years old,” she said, “And you have taught me – to trust high school students.” And to learn from them. I know I did.

* * *

Having shared two notes that I tweeted out during Friday evening’s discussion, let me take this opportunity to recount what little I managed to set down for those who follow me on Twitter, typing quickly with my thumbs even as I paid attention to the worthy colloquy. They are unedited, but in chronological order. I hope they speak for themselves.

  • Frankie Faison to Joe Turner cast: “This is not easy stuff to do.”
  • Frankie Faison: “Even before you did this play, you’d found your song. You went to the Board of Ed so you could do this play.”
  • Joe Turner cast member: “We don’t get material like this every day. We’re the MTV generation. We’re bombarded by trash.”
  • Eisa Davis: “Don’t let this play be your only experience with this work. Let August Wilson lead you to your history.”
  • Eisa Davis: “Learn your history. Yes, it had slavery. But August Wilson showed us laughter and love that rose from that.”
  • Audience member: “I was worried about use of the n-word. I’m 72 years old and you have taught me – to trust high school students.”
  • Eisa Davis: “I don’t use the n-word. But I am a playwright and I created a character who had to use it.”
  • Cast member: “7 year old kids don’t know where this word came from. They hear their older brothers using it. They think it came from Tupac.”
  • Frankie Faison: “This is not a play about using this word one time or 50 times. We do this play a disservice if we make it about this word.”
  • Frankie Faison: “Let’s not walk away carrying this word. Let us carry the work done on this stage tonight.”
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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