“In my Earth Science class we’re supposed to learning, but that’s like everybody’s confession session. So this one kid told this other kid who is black, ‘You should be Django for Halloween.’ The black kid says, you know, ‘You’re mad ignorant,’ and then I responded, and I was like, ‘How can you say that to somebody? Do you even know who that is?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s an African slave.’ And I said, ‘That’s not a joke. You don’t glorify that.’ And he’s like, ‘It would be so funny.’ And he didn’t understand why I was offended by it. It’s not even cause I’m black. It’s just the fact of why would you say that to somebody? Just why?”
I’ll be hearing more stories like this over the next six months while meeting with Brandy, Mandi, Isaiah, Jaylin, Azaria, Chanique, Paul, and Aaliyah. They’re high school students in New York City. And they’re going to help me write a play.
As a lucky recipient of a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship, I will be working at Roundabout Theatre Company to write and workshop a play that deals with the urban high school experience. To stay authentic, I’m sharing authorship with this group of teens. They’re in the room to make sure I cover issues that are real and relevant.
There will probably be a teacher’s voice in the play, too; I’m less worried about that one. What I need help with is capturing authentic student voices. I interviewed many applicants by phone and email, but my first face-to-face this week with the selected eight was inspiring. They come from three schools and four boroughs. They are loud and they are honest. We wrote some scenes collaboratively right away, because I wanted them to become real playwrights before they had time to think about it.
I ferreted away the short scripts as soon as they were written and had some actors rehearse them in secret. A half-hour later, my playwriting group was rolling with laughter as they saw their characters come to life in front of them:
“For rich or for less poor, cause I will never be less broke!”
“I ain’t even do nothin’. I done been faithful to her. How come she don’t love me?”
“All I know is that you need to buy yourself a new weave, girl. You lookin’ a lil’ stiff.”
We ended our session by creating prioritized lists of issues these students deal with every day. They told me that every day they interact in some way with: racism, fake friends, self-harm, love, sex, abortions, gay bullying. And weaves.
“God did not bless me with instant hair growth. But I can get bangs – you know, bangs or longer hair – overnight. Ain’t nobody got time for washing. I just wanna go to the store. 99-cent store. And ask them to pass the weave.”
It’s going to be a wild ride. Follow the journey more closely over on Facebook.
Daniel Robert Sullivan appeared in Jersey Boys as Tommy DeVito in the Toronto and International Companies. He has performed at Kansas City Rep, Arizona Theatre Company, Pan Asian Rep, the York, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Gloucester Stage, and others. His backstage memoir, Places Please! (Becoming A Jersey Boy), was published last year by Iguana Books.
The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.