Sunday, December 17, 2017

Teaching Theater / Building Empathy

This past week ended the Monologue Unit in my Theater Intro classes.  

For the past month, students have been working on understanding how to interpret their monologues and embody their characters. They’ve been using mini-lessons that I present to find the thought/emotion shifts that exist within their scripts, establish a clear “moment before” the words even come out of their mouths so as to develop urgency and purpose for their characters, figure out what characters are trying to do through the words they’re speaking.  

Basically, I’ve been trying to move them from being a teenager reading some words on a page to an actual character living, thinking, feeling, and expressing some moment of their world to us.

And it’s been awesome!  Lots of laughter, tears, applause, snaps of encouragement to help them when they freeze up onstage, and a feedback session of supportive comments for each actor after they perform. 

I love being a theater teacher.

This year, 2 students decided to write their own original pieces, instead of using one of the hundreds that I make available.  Since it’s not a creative writing class and I don’t have the class time to go in-depth about quality playwriting, I normally try to get them to just find one written by someone else. That way, they are focusing more on the acting and interpretation skills that I’m teaching.  But these girls were insistent, so I allowed them the space to perform their original work.

The first girl, Sierra*, performed a monologue from the perspective of a Black mother whose son had been murdered by the police.  She demonstrated deep emotions, and spoke into the room the pain, anger, and steely recognition of the ubiquity of police killings of young Black people. 

The second girl, Aaliyah, performed a piece she had been working on since last year, about the murder of her younger brother.  She quietly shared her story, body shaking and fighting back tears, spelling out her journey of hatred, a want for revenge, and a desire to move toward acceptance and forgiveness. 

And the room changed.  

We were silent.  We were crying.  We wanted to share with one another.

One guy, who had lost 2 of his friends this year to shootings, said that it really hit him hard.  He had been coping with his loss this year by actively not facing his emotions, but that Aaliyah’s story was bringing up everything he knew he felt.  He recognized that she must have put herself deeply into her feelings, and he, being scared of doing just that same thing, was incredibly proud of her her for doing it.

Several other boys in the class agreed with him, faces tensed up, tears brewing just beneath the surface.  A few shared that they also had lost people who were shot on the streets of our city, and that they never got enough space or time to process their feelings. They were expressing a reluctant gratitude for getting time with their emotions.

We passed them the Kleenex box.

Another girl, tears streaming down her face, shared that Aaliyah’s monologue made her think about her own brother. “He’s getting into dumb stuff,” she shared with us. “Reacting without thinking. Getting into fights.  I’m so scared for him. I want him to think. I don’t want him to get killed.”  We hugged her, and she agreed to go home and talk to him about these feelings that had just been made clear to her. Instead of “nagging,” she wanted to be honest with him about her love and fear for him.

The guy who played the role of the white cop during Sierra’s scene said that he was moved by having to stand there, silent and uncaring, while she expressed her feelings of rage and loss.  He said that he realized that that’s actually how some white police officers act, and that he had a visceral reaction of anger that they could care so little.  He said, “I don’t ever want another Black mother to have to go through that experience.”  It was powerful that he was pushed in his own perspective as a white person by Sierra’s words.

I thanked these 2 young women.  I told them that their words and performances offered us a gift of their vulnerability, and it had moved us, as a community, through an opening into our own vulnerability. 

When we perform for one another, I always make my students put away their phones, saying, “For the next __ minutes, we will be participating in our shared humanity.”  It had become, in some ways, a little joke in the class.  But this week’s performances showed us that is exactly what we’re doing.  

That is the point of theater, of getting in front of a group of people and showing a slice of life, of expressing our shared humanity.  At a time when our young people are seeing a deep lack of humanity playing out in the public discourse of our country, when many economic and socio-political decisions are being made that, in fact, undercut the prioritizing of a shared humanity, I feel even more committed to holding these spaces for them. 

This week, many students said that they felt more connected to one another, that they had more empathy for what others are going through.  One said, “This is exactly why I love coming to this class.”  

I couldn’t agree more. 

* Names have been changed.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

When our Hearts Fall upon Deaf Ears; A Call to Switch Up our Strategy

photo: PAROS
Went to Harrisburg again yesterday.  Again meaning, I again put on my same red T-shirt and again went on the bus full of chatty kids and sleepy elders and eloquent preachers, to again pack the steps of the grand rotunda full with our cries for Full Funding for Public Education because, again, the State Assembly is voting on a budget.
I am not a policy wonk, much to the dismay of my ever-so-wishful father.  I am more of a feeler, breather, decipherer of a fuller humanistic/political context.  

So, while I can’t rattle off the numbers for pension holding givebacks, I can tell you that the purpose of the Pennsylvania State House is to hold onto the power of having power.  And the purpose of our ritual visits is to try to evoke pity from those men in suits who are comfortable enough to never have to look our kids in the eye.
That’s what I felt stuffed onto that marble stairway, shouting “400 million! 400 million!” as student after student of color got on the mic to detail the deplorable conditions of their schools and the sub-standard quality of their hands-off educations.
As our voices echoed up into the ornate dome, in the halls of state power, white men in suits bustled about about with self-importance, tanned smiles and unnatural comb-overs, all shaking hands and congratulating each other on a swifter budget process than last year.  But not listening.  

And no amount of a collared preacher pointing down at the babies, detailing these kids’ survival through the traumas of poverty, with incarcerated parents and food scarcity and crumbling schools, will change those men’s fiscal maneuvers.  Those appeals, meant to somehow soften the hardened heart of some Alleghany County Republican off wheeling deals to cut corporate taxes and take home a little pork for his home district, those appeals won’t be listened to or cared about.
photo: Carolyn Kaster
Returning back to Philly, I don’t question the intent, commitment or love of our gathering.  I question our strategy:
What is the place of going to Harrisburg to tell these stories of neglect and disrepair?
Should our target really be in the hearts of those who have been the cause of our neglect?  Or should the target be, not their hearts, but their soft, insulated, safe lifestyles?  Disruption of their business as usual.  

How do we force those who would prefer, instead, to relax on their sectional sofas to pay attention to the suffering taking place down the interstate from their own decisions. How do we force their hand, their vote, their giving up of something?
Yesterday, each and every young person who got on the mic on that marble stairway said, “At my school, there is not clean drinking water.”
And that is it.  That is everything.
We have failed.
When children say to us that they don’t have water to drink, then, bottom line, we have failed as a society. And I refer to something bigger than just the failure of our so-called leaders to pass a budget.  We have actually failed as humans.  And we need to, each one of us, myself included, recognize this failure sooner rather than later, so that we can be led by something greater than electoral strategy or partisan pettiness, and actually do something about it.
We need to listen.  Really listen to these young people’s testimony of their lived realities.  And then zero in on how our stomachs feel.  The pounding of the blood in our ears.  The dryness in our throats and the uneasy itch over our palms.  This is the feeling that we have a responsibility to one another that we, as a collective body, have neglected to fulfill.  That feeling tells us that we have a deeper embodied knowledge of how neighbors treat neighbors.  
And we need to act from that knowledge instead of allowing for the political charade we call the State Assembly of Pennsylvania, where white men are paid to scurry by, not listening to 8 year-old boys deliver the clear, searing words that spell out these politicians’ criminal neglect.
To quote cultural critic Hoyt Fuller, back in 1971: “The facts of Negro life accuse white people.  In order to look at Negro life unflinchingly, the white viewer [legislator] either must relegate it to the realm of the subhuman, thereby justifying an attitude of indifference, or else the white viewer [legislator] must confront the imputation of guilt against him.  And no man who considers himself humane wishes to admit complicity in crimes against the human spirit.”
So I suppose that is why most of those white men in suits don’t come into the rotunda while we’re there.  Are, in fact, nowhere to be found.  Refuse to take in the words that spell their own moral void, deep complicity, and profound guilt.   

The facts of these young people’s lives and schooling should accuse white people.  And from that accusation, each and every one of us/them needs to decide, in the words of the Dream Defenders and the Movement for Black Lives: Which side of history are you on?  Either move toward the responsibility of meeting our collective needs, of repairing historical harm of decades of disinvestment and structural racism, or get the f**k out the way and sink yourself and your lineage further into spiritual depravity.  

There are actual leaders prepared to do the work that needs to be done.    
State Congressman, enough is enough.  It’s time to cough up the keys to the castle – on this, specifically, vis-à-vis the appropriations committee – and deliver what is rightly owed to these Black and Brown children living in Philadelphia.

And for the rest of us, we need to be moved by our deeper understanding that a more humane, people-oriented society is possible, is on its way, and we need to put our individual and collective energies into the hard work, along whatever front we are oriented, toward that transformation.  
That is what this moment asks of us. It is urgent and necessary to step into a shifted strategy.  Anything less is a continued failure of our shared humanity.

Fuller, Hoyt.  “Towards a Black Aesthetic.”  S.O.S. – Calling All Black People: A Black
Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst.
University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 179-84. Print.