Friday, April 4, 2014

The Theater Freaks of Claremont and 172nd Fight Back

Barry decides that now would be a good time for us to talk about his vest.
It’s two hours to curtain on opening night of “The King and I” and I am standing in a blinding patch of orange sunlight on the corner of 172nd street and Claremont Avenue in the South Bronx, surrounded by a panicking swarm of sweaty adolescents and pleading with our school’s understandably furious building manager to let us back in, even though the alarm is still going off, so we can keep rehearsing while we wait for the fire department to come.

One of my fellow teachers has just accidentally backed into the deluge shut-off valve—preposterously located in the cramped backstage area of our tiny performance space—and triggered the alarm, forcing us all to evacuate. Many of the kids, including Barry, are in various stages of undress.

As the building manager explains to me with a sharp edge of irritation in his voice that it’s illegal for us to return to the building before the fire department comes, and I listen helplessly as baseless rumors begin to ripple through the crowd of kids—There’s a real fire! It’s arson! The sprinkler system is ruining the sets! The King has slipped and broken his ankle!—I feel an insistent tug on my elbow and turn around to find Barry staring up mournfully at me. He is clutching his sequined velvet vest closed to cover his otherwise bare torso as best he can, the too-tight waistband of his school uniform pants accentuating the little bulge of baby fat around his middle. “Ms. Q, I’m sorry,” he says in a whisper, tugging at the vest and shaking his head miserably, “but I’m just not wearing this. It’s just… I’m not comfortable in it.”
“Barry, honey,” I say, struggling to keep my tone even, “It looks fine. We just don’t have time to deal with it now, OK?”
Even before the alarm got triggered, we were already emphatically behind schedule. Props, costumes, paint cans, tools and backpacks are still littering the floor and benches of the gymnatorium. The cast still needs to eat dinner, get fully in costume, get into make-up, get mic’ed, and—Oh, God!—stage the curtain call, which somehow we’ve been pushing to the end of our to-do list everyday and then forgetting about. The crew kids still have to set up the chairs for the audience, tape down the band’s cables and wires, and deal with several of the stage lights which have been flickering ominously all afternoon. All of this has to happen before we can let in the public, an overzealous few of whom are already starting to arrive, gawking in bewilderment at the scene greeting them on the corner.

Four months of rehearsals and planning come down to what happens in the next two hours. Adrenaline pounds through me.

Mercifully now, the fire trucks arrive with their sirens screaming. Firemen pour out of them in full gear and blow past us at a run.

I heave a breath and start giving directions to the cast.

“India! Darien!” I call out, throat raspy. I lunge forward and grab them by the wrists, physically pulling them together into an open space on the sidewalk. “Here. Practice your waltz and run that dialogue from right before the beating scene. It was a hot mess last night.” I look up to where India is standing with Darien on the sidewalk in waltz position and see that, except for a pair of skintight jeans, she is dressed only in a tightly boned corset, the high-necked blouse that usually covers it apparently abandoned in her frantic rush from the dressing room. Darien, always the gentleman, is politely averting his eyes. “Put this on, rock star,” I say, pulling a paint-covered T-shirt out of my backpack and tossing it to her. “Samantha, Jada and Ashley. Get Essence and Nikisha and go through that ‘Western People Funny’ choreography, the part they missed when they were on that field trip. Tay and Barry! Come here and run the letter scene with me.”
Tay puts her arm around Barry and begins to go through the dialogue with him. He won’t make eye contact with her and murmurs his lines inaudibly.
I glace at Barry’s bare midriff and wince as it hits me how exposed this charismatic but still fundamentally insecure 7th grader must feel right now, ripped unceremoniously from the cocoon of the glowing stage and the tenuous safety of the world we’ve created there.
Barry as Prince Chulalongkorn

“Barry, look,” I say. “I know it’s a stretch, but I need you to trust me, OK? I get that it feels really awkward out here, but once you’re up on stage again in the lights, and you’re playing the character, it’s going to look great. You’re going to be amazing. I promise. Trust me.”

At this moment, a pack of lanky kids from the school on the next block rolls past, their skinny jeans pulled down so low their entire boxer-clad butt cheeks are exposed, forcing them to swagger, legs apart, thighs leading, so their pants don’t ride down to their knees. Laughter crackles out of them, they are hitting each other hard on the shoulders and pointing at us. “Nice vest, faggot!” one of them calls.

Barry’s chest caves. He just collapses, slumped and mortified. His nostrils twitch and flare, his eyes glaze. This is the same kid who’s been missing rehearsals and serving detentions all semester for getting into physical fights, and now he’s standing here next to me, half naked in a velvet sequined vest, completely shut down and defeated. I suddenly regret every lecture I’ve ever given him about the importance of learning to solve problems without violence. Yes, underneath their aggression these kids are just kids, they’re the children of mothers, their lives are as precious as my own child’s life, but—forgive me—at this moment all I want to do is to beat their asses for talking shit to Barry. Correction: All I want is for Barry to beat their asses.
Before I can do anything—and, really, what could I have done? What could I have said to Barry? How could I have stepped to those kids?—a hand shoots out and grabs Barry’s shoulder, ushering him into a thick knot of half-costumed actors.

Chris and BarryIt’s Chris, the senior who plays the role of the king.

Chris is wearing the beaded red pants for Act II, the ones the lady from the costume shop was so excited to rent to us because Cuba Gooding Jr. had worn them in a recent “King and I” revival on Broadway. Even in the height of the tension on the street I still have the presence of mind to be annoyed at Chris for this small but telling infraction. He’s in costume, not because he wants to be ready for Act I; he’s in the wrong costume—the special, expensive, irreplaceable costume—because it’s one more way for him to push the limits, to show me that he’s got the power in this relationship. He knows that with me stressed and distracted he’ll be able to get away with it, and he’s right.
Equally annoying is the fact that he is shirtless and, even more galling to me: barefoot. But he’s also swooped in and saved Barry when I wouldn’t have been able to. Classic Chris.
I allow him a fleeting look of gratitude for his intervention, then gesture at his feet and the dirty, glass-strewn sidewalk, and let my face fall into a deadpan stare. “Seriously, Chris?”
He digs in his backpack, produces his tattered script—the one he has infuriatingly been forgetting to bring to rehearsal the last four months—drops it onto the sidewalk and not without a certain ceremony, steps onto it. Then he grins at me and addresses the assembled crowd, raising his arms regally and glaring hard at the skinny-jean kids who have abandoned Barry and moved on to cat-calling the still bare-shouldered, corseted India.
Chris closes his eyes and draws in a long, full breath. Then he begins.
“Oh, Buddha,” he intones loudly in the deep baritone call-and-response chant of the Act I Finale. “Give us the aid and the strength of your wisdom.”
All down the sidewalk, the heads of the scattered kids snap in his direction and, in a Pavlovian reaction that seems to startle them as much as it startles me, they chant back in unison, some of them laughing out loud at the incongruousness of playing out this temple scene in the middle of the street.
“Oh Buddha,” they call out. “Give us the aid of your strength and your wisdom.”
Chris improvises a haunting open-throated melody over the chanting. Then he continues. “And help us to prove to the visiting English that we are an extraordinary and remarkable people.”
The kids chant back. “And help us to prove to the visiting English that we are an extraordinary and remarkable people.”

Chris takes a bowThe skinny-jean kids make a big deal about showing us and each other that they think this is the gayest, wackest, weakest, freakiest, most retarded thing they’ve ever seen. But they’ve clearly lost momentum. Because now they’re outnumbered. And our kids may be freaks, but they’re taking themselves seriously, 100% committed to their weirdness. They continue with the scene, getting louder and louder, more aggressively jubilant, as the firemen shuttle in and out of the building and the skinny-jean kids start to back away.

Barry looks up at Chris. Chris spreads the fingers of one hand wide, sets his open palm down on the top of Barry’s head and gives it a reassuring squeeze. Then he looks over at me and smiles.

One of the firemen stomps around the edge of the crowd and puts a gloved hand on the back of my shoulder. “You’re good to go, honey,” he says, swinging himself up into the cab of the truck and slamming the door behind him. He leans out the window on a huge beefy forearm and shakes his head with a kind of bemused amazement at the crowd of half-dressed, waltzing, chanting teenagers. “Good luck,” he says, with a raspy little chuckle. “Or—wait—what is it you theater kids say?”

“Break a leg!” the kids call out loudly.

“Yeah, right. That’s it,” he says with a nod. “That’s it. Break a leg.”
Curtain call
All photos by Alejandro Duran at The Digital Project.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why Broadway's First Black "Phantom" is a Really Big Deal

When the announcement was made recently that Tony Nominee Norm Lewis was slated to make history as the first African American to play the lead role in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, I found out because my theater-nerd students were ecstatically posting about it on Facebook.
Kate and Denisse with Norm Lewis at the Porgy and Bess stage door
Kate and Denisse with Norm Lewis at the Porgy and Bess stage door
The reason so many of my students are fans of Lewis’ work is that it was his performance as Javert in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables that convinced them to take a chance on a show they’d never heard of and audition for our production of Les Misat Bronx Prep. I’m not prone to waiting at Broadway stage doors (or taking selfies with stars for that matter), but when I told a couple of my students I was seeing Lewis in Porgy and Bess on Broadway back in the summer of 2012, they demanded that I stay after the show and deliver a message on their behalf. “Tell him that if he hadn’t been such an awesome Javert,” they said, “we probably never would have tried out for Les Mis, and we would have missed out on one of the best shows our school has ever put on.”
When we first considered doing Les Misérables at Bronx Prep, our musical director Geoffrey Kiorpes and my co-director Denisse Polanco and I didn’t actually think it would fly.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tonight, In the Role of the Man-Eating Plant (or, How a Venus Flytrap Saved My Marriage)

“Well, I sure do agree you’re in a pickle, there,” says the maddeningly chipper phone receptionist. “But our rental agreement clearly states that the puppet needs to be operated by a performer of above-average height and superior athleticism.”

“Right,” I say, struggling not to throw my cell phone across the gym. “But, this kid’s over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker.”
“Mm-hmm,” says the phone lady soothingly. “Well, let’s troubleshoot. Tell me: How is the young man’s thigh strength?”
We’re eight days from opening night of our school’s annual spring musical. This year we’re doing “Little Shop of Horrors.”
The cast of "Little Shop" around the piano with Dr. Klorpes
                  The cast of “Little Shop” around the piano with Dr. Kiorpes
Compared to other shows I’ve directed, we’re actually in pretty decent shape. Lines are learned, songs are choreographed, costumes are sewn and organized. Parents have worked around the clock transforming the crappy bare stage in the corner of our gym into a professional-looking set. And our lead puppeteer, a talented senior named Keegon—who, let’s be honest, may not be an Olympian but is far and away the tallest and stockiest kid in the cast—has spent the last three months not only memorizing every line, lyric and facial tic of Audrey II, the show’s infamous killer flytrap, but has also learned how to synch his body movements to the plant’s vocals, which are performed by another actor offstage.
Now all Keegon needs is an actual puppet. 

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing Down the Fear

For the past five years I’ve been talking about writing a book about my experiences teaching theater in the South Bronx. Again and again over the years, life circumstances have intervened and pulled my focus off the project. With a home full of three young children and a teaching career I can’t seem to fully hit pause on, there is always a reason not to write.
Still, the dream of the book has not died. And so, slowly and painstakingly over the last six months—sometimes in fifteen-minute chunks as I nurse a baby, or in a waking dream state after getting up with a sick kid, or on my now only once-weekly commute up to school on the D train—I’ve started writing it.
Mostly, the experience has been exciting and alleviating. What a relief, at long last, to be getting out of my own way and flexing a new set of creative muscles. What a joy to bear witness on the page to the lessons I’ve learned in the presence of my extraordinary students.
But there’s been a shadow side, too.

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