“The biggest difference [between] watching something on television and watching something in a theater, is that [in theater] you're watching it with a community of people. Theater is about community,” said Scott Barrow, a guest playwright from Tectonic Theater Project in NYC, who, along with Milta Ortiz from Borderlands Theater in Arizona, is facilitating a new project at Working Classroom. Working Classroom, a nonprofit arts organization for youth in the Barelas neighborhood, is working on a year-long theater project addressing educational inequity that will be presented at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in early 2017. Meggan Gomez, the Theater Education Director, conceived of the project more than two years ago and was quick to put it into action with the support of the visiting playwrights and a host of others. The bilingual play is inspired by interviews and texts that address issues in the public school system. Collaborators—which include five paid student interns—use the experience of students, teachers, administrators and activists, as well as their individual experiences with public schooling, to inform the production.
A preview of the work-in-progress performed in late June at the NHCC showcased the skilled and articulate student actors, using props as metaphors in an experimental, movement-based piece developed through improvisation. “All we need is a well-lit stage,” Gomez said of the 12-minute long piece that serves as a prologue to the year-long project. Yet, in those 12 minutes student actors delivered a remarkable performance, creating a thought-provoking parody of a classroom. One actor impersonated a student leaping for a teacher’s attention with her hand raised, whining, “Pick me! I know the answer! Pick me!” Emotion escalated as another yelled, “Those with good grades have figured out the system!” A chaotic, yet methodized group pulled, reached and twisted in a configuration of struggle. According to Jorja Brickhouse, a 12-year-old student actor with incredible stage presence, the cast created movement based on the interviews they conducted, listening for testimony that created an image.
In the performance, Michelle Perez, one of the interns on the project, tied student’s wrists together, showing a distressing image of a teacher’s struggle to get students to succeed. Perez said the school-to-prison pipeline, a term used to describe policing in schools, prevents success when students are disciplined and expelled under the guise of safety.
In the performance, Michelle Perez, one of the interns on the project, tied student’s wrists together, showing a distressing image of a teacher’s struggle to get students to succeed. Perez said the school-to-prison pipeline, a term used to describe policing in schools, prevents success when students are disciplined and expelled under the guise of safety. Another intern, Elijah Chavez, carried a basket of lemons that he systematically distributed and then took away as a metaphor for the unequal distribution of resources among schools. Chavez cited the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a standardized test on mathematics and English as an example of this. “The test is online and some schools can’t afford computers,” he explained.
Barrow pointed out that standardized tests don’t include the arts. “It’s like saying the arts aren’t important,” said Barrow, who believes there’s no way to have a solid education without both participation and exposure to the arts. Barrow said acting teaches students communication, empathy and how to think on their feet. Barrow suggested that when students aren’t given an emotional outlet, they express frustration in detrimental ways.
Ortiz told her own story of navigating the American school system as an immigrant from El Salvador. “No one told me I had to take the SAT,” she said. Once she graduated, she thought community college was her only option, not realizing she could apply for scholarships. “I was a great student and I had good grades, but the public school system failed me,” she said. Ortiz ended up receiving her MFA in playwriting from an Ivy League college, but she stresses this isn’t the case for most students with a similar history.
“Many of the students dropping out and not going to college are students of color,” she said. “They don’t see themselves reflected in history or the media positively. They don’t know their history. They don’t know that they’re capable of great things. We don’t think we’re solving the problem of education inequity with our play, but we’d like to think about solutions by giving a picture of what the educational system looks like today,” she continued.
Gomez said Working Classroom is planning a statewide tour of their play and to publish the script. They would like to have petitions available to sign at the end of performances. “We want to affect statewide education policies and potentially affect policies nationwide,” said Antonio Granillo, a student at Working Classroom and an actor in the play.
A second preview of Working Classroom’s monumental play will be shown August 6 at the Wells Fargo Theatre at the NHCC at 7pm. Performers including Antonio Granillo, David de la Cruz, Camila Lucerom Aylin Payen, Analy Morales, Elijah Chavez, Michelle Perez, and Jorja Brickhouse will show the progress they’ve made in hopes of opening eyes to problems in the education system. Admission is free.