(Production photos by J David Levy from last 2013’s Streets production titled Old Hearts Fresh, based on The Winter’s Tale, and 2012’s Streets production The New World, based on The Tempest)
(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MO. This series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia Alick, Mica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ Shakespeare in the Streets is a grass roots theatrical experience that invites St. Louis’ diverse neighborhoods to tell their unique community stories. The day that Mike Brown was shot and killed in the St. Louis County municipality of Ferguson, MO, the Festival was several weeks into the development process of our show Good in Everything, set to hit the streets of Clayton, MO in September 2014. Clayton, MO, a predominantly white, affluent community in St. Louis County, has recently become a center of protests in response to Mike Brown’s death. It houses the St. Louis County Justice Center. Clayton also happens to be the first municipality in the county of St. Louis to participate in the historic Voluntary Desegregation Program with the City of St. Louis. The program was started in the 1980s to promote school choice and integration between the City and the county of St. Louis. Through the program, African American students from the City of St. Louis can choose to attend schools in Clayton instead of their zoned city school. For Good in Everything, resident playwright Nancy Bell crafted a funny and honest script built from observations and interviews with a diverse group of students at Clayton High School. Based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the story is told through the eyes of students and teachers. It is a love story between a black student from the City of St. Louis and a white student from Clayton. It is real and it is hopeful.
Shakespeare in the Streets is a project with a mission to shut down streets, not in protest, not for the sake of crime control, and not out of anger, but to allow theater to facilitate conversation and perhaps build bridges between the often segregated communities of St. Louis. As the Director of Community Engagement and Education for the Festival, it is my job to bring people together for conversation around our plays. In building the panel for our upcoming talk back scheduled to follow one of the performances, I have been drawn to witnessing how educators in our community are talking to their students about Ferguson. This led me back to Clayton High School. Professional actress and drama teacher at Clayton High, Kelley Weber, will be playing the role of Duke (a drama teacher at Clayton High, based on her) in our production of Good in Everything. Three days after Michael Brown’s mother laid him to rest, Kelley brought together two professional actors and over 200 students and administrators for a staged reading of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. Dutchman, was written in 1964 and focuses on relations between a black man and a white woman on a subway train in civil rights era New York City. Ms. Weber invited Dr. Jonathan Smith, Professor of African American Studies at Saint Louis University and father of two students that attended Clayton High School as part of the Voluntary Desegregation Program, to facilitate. Graciously, Dr. Smith and Ms. Weber agreed to share their ideas on the project:
Jennifer Wintzer: How did you come up with the idea for this project? What were your goals?
Kelley Weber: It was the first week of school and the events in Ferguson were happening. I immediately had a response. In theater class, kids often want to talk about what is going on in the world and they clearly wanted to talk about what was happening in Ferguson. And so we did. And I felt like there was an imbalance in the power structure in the room. The way that the white kids were talking about this event and how the students of color were pretty quiet. I’m sure that it wasn’t like that in all the classes, but I felt like it was like that in my classes and I just wanted there to be some kind of structure where there was more listening and thoughtful thinking happening. I wanted to figure out some way for the African American kids to feel safe to talk about what was happening. I reached out to alumni, a parent, a retired faculty member, people in the community that are involved in this kind of work in terms of racial dialogues and conversations. I just kind of put my problem out there. Immediately, people responded with really thoughtful and generous responses, especially the men in the group. They responded with talking about Dutchman and that it might be a good jumping off place to deal with the events in Ferguson in a context that was a little safer, to use as a piece of art.
JW: Why did you want to participate in this project?
Jonathan Smith: One of the first and most important reasons for me is that this is a community for which I am familiar. And it’s a community of people I love. And it’s a community that I felt I could be of use in in terms of talking to this community. I felt like I was in a place where I could say the things that needed to be said and at the same time be heard in ways that needed to be heard. There are difficulties of having people come from the outside, as opposed to someone we might trust within the framework of community. The other main reason is justice. It’s wanting to do something that helps people to think more consistently, more honestly, and more practically about justice.
JW: What do you hope students will take away from this experience?
KW: A lot of the students in looking at the play as a response to what was happening in Ferguson, had to be reminded that this play is fifty years old. It was a little shocking. I think I wanted kids to take away the fact that this is not a new issue, that this has been happening and that the conversation shouldn’t just stop and start around these kind of polarizing events. This needs to be an ongoing conversation and topic. My hope too is that for the kids that didn’t ask questions, that somehow they were affirmed in knowing that we are trying to start a dialogue, that we are trying to talk, that maybe the next time there is an opportunity for dialogue, maybe it will be a little easier for them to talk about things. It might be that it won’t be until twenty years from now and they look back and they say wow we did that. I remember that play and those are things that I can say now, I can articulate what that means to me.
JS: I hope that they will take away the sense that there is no such thing as an ordinary encounter. I hope that they think more closely about how a relationship advances from point A to point B and what they can do to prevent a relationship from heading down the wrong path. I hope they are more thoughtful in terms of their encounters and relationships. And that, I think, is eminently connected to justice. That justice requires a lot more thoughtfulness. Not some wishy-washy thoughtfulness, but really attentive thoughtfulness in terms of how we relate to each other.
JW: Were there any moments in the conversation with the students that surprised you?
JS: Not much. I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t offended or that they didn’t kind of blow a gasket at the language used in the show. I’ve been around here long enough to know that the community treats them as mature, accountable people. There was one question in the second session that was just much more mature than a high school question. It sounded like an almost college level, grad student seminar question. I think she might be a sophomore who was sitting not next to a teacher, but her dad. That’s one of the reasons I love this kind of community because she is leading the conversation about what to do in the future. Her dad’s not leading it, I’m not leading it. She is. And that keeps me hopeful.
KW: Jonathan’s responses. I couldn’t have done it without Jonathan and his expertise. He is just so good. A student asked about the character of Lulu killing Clay and why. Another student tried to answer. She tried to give a reason for why it might have happened. I think we see this response in the media with Ferguson. We keep trying to find a reason. And what Jonathan said in the moment is well, with my expert opinion, I don’t know. There was no reason that this interaction between these two human beings had to lead to someone’s death. No matter how things escalate or how things happen, in the moment, there is no reason for this to end in death. We should be outraged. The question deals with what we do with that sense of outrage and talking to students about it. That anger is an okay feeling to have and there is a constructive way of dealing with the outrage.
JW: How can educators best facilitate a conversation with students about the events in Ferguson?
KW: I think the way that I found was by reaching out to people who can help. There are resources that are out there. Right now there is a sense, certainly with administration, that we have to do this the right way. We can’t incite any passion or emotion in these kids, but I think we can do that. We just need to make sure we have the best resources available to them to discuss things. For me that was reaching out to people who could help me and help me do it well. And then using what you know. For me that was using theater.
JW: Why an artistic response to Ferguson?
JS: One of the reasons Kelley picked Dutchman is because I think at the moment, when LeRoy Jones becomes Baraka, throughout his life never gives up on the notion that art has some relationship to social change. I don’t think we can ever imagine real social change, particularly in the US without cultural and artistic responses. Sometimes they happen organically within movements. In the middle of political activity there are these ways that we have to reshape all of the cultural things that we do. We can’t go too long before we have to sing a song, or draw a sketch, or tell a joke about it, and those things move through the culture with a speed that ideology doesn’t move. Art is always doing this kind of work that speeds and amplifies political messages through the culture. That is why it is important to think about generating artistic responses as quickly as possible.
KW: I read an article of Baraka’s, in order to send out information to the teachers to prep students before this play. The play is very raw and in one of the articles a teacher asked Baraka if students should see this play. He said absolutely. He said that modern teenage students don’t have the belief that art has the ability to change the world. I think this play is important in communicating that. You know it has that ability to change the way that people think and the way that people act. I feel that the most exciting theater that I see has an element of social justice to it. The work that we have done at our school like The Laramie Project, those projects, those plays that we have done, have always been the most well attended, the most emotional, and the kids have been the most engaged in them. I just find them more fulfilling. We have power in story and kids feel that. Kids are changed forever when they do a play that has meaning.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ Shakespeare in the Streets production of Good in Everything written by Nancy Bell and directed by Alec Wild, will run September 18-20, 2014 in Clayton, MO. The street of N. Central Ave in Clayton will be closed each night for an 8 PM performance. The play will feature professional actors and community members. A talk back moderated by Dr. JB Kwon of FOCUS: St. Louis will follow the Friday, September 19th performance and will include resident playwright, Nancy Bell and Dr. Jonathan Smith as they continue the conversation around race and education equality. Visit www.sfstl.com for more details.
Jennifer Wintzer is the Director of Community Engagement and Education of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, overseeing all programs in the schools and in the streets. Previously at Lincoln Center Theater, Wintzer served as Education Projects Manager for the highly successful Learning English and Drama (LEAD) Project. She was part of the curriculum development and teaching artist team responsible for hosting over 3500 student audiences annually for LCT shows including War Horse, Blood and Gifts, Golden Boy, Macbeth and Act One. As Education Coordinator at Second Stage Theatre Company, Wintzer developed curriculum for student audiences for Pulitzer Prize winning plays such as Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive directed by Kate Whoriskey and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful directed by Davis McCallum, as well as The Last Five Years written and directed by Jason Robert Brown.
Selected educational theater credits include three seasons as Assistant Director for the MCC Theater Youth Company’s Off-Broadway production of Uncensored at Theatre Row; Producing Artistic Director of the Chekhov Theatre Ensemble’s The Poe Project in partnership with Theater for the New City; Ensemble member of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ Imaginary Theater Company; and Teaching Artist for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ inaugural season of Romeo and Juliet. Her contributions as Master Teaching Artist for Stages of Learning (1994-2010), are in founder Floyd Rumhor’s book, STAGEiT! Shakespeare, a theater making professional development guide for teachers.
Wintzer was awarded the Stages of Learning Master Teaching Artist 2006 Award and Young Audiences New York’s Teaching Artist of the Year 2013. She served on the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable’s Development Committee 2013, is a member of the Actor’s Equity Association, and is a certified yoga teacher, RYT.
Kelley Weber is a drama teacher at Clayton High School, most recently seen on stage with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Forest Park in the cast of Henry IV and V. Favorite roles include The Price (Ester) and Lost in Yonkers (Bella) at The New Jewish Theatre; Winter’s Tale (Paulina), Shadowlands (Joy), and Tartuffe (Elmire) at Mustard Seed Theatre. Favorite Shakespeare roles include As You Like It (Rosalind), Love’s Labour’s Lost (Princess), Measure for Measure (Isabella), Taming of the Shrew (Bianca), The Tempest (Trinculo) and Twelfth Night (Viola). Kelley recently directed The Mary Shelley Monster Show at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. She has been the theater director at Clayton High for 15 years.
Dr. Jonathan Smith is Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Saint Louis University. He holds a M.F.A. in Writing and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature, both from Washington University in Saint Louis, MO. His poems have appeared in such journals as Callaloo, African American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and River Styx.