It's a Tuesday after ninth period and I'm walking down the hallway of my South Bronx school toward what looks unmistakably like a fight. A tight circle of high school boys are gathered around two other boys on the floor outside of the classroom where I teach theater. One of the boys appears to be pounding the other with his fist. The other kids are chanting, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"
The scene doesn't make sense to me. Sure, we have our fair share of hallway scuffles, but compared to most schools in the neighborhood, ours isn't terribly violent. I get closer and recognize that all the kids in the group are cast members in Les Miserábles, the spring musical I'm directing. Now I'm even more confused. Some of these kids may struggle academically and some have tough home lives, but there's not a bully or a thug among them. Even so, the energy of the scene automatically triggers memories of my early days as a new teacher breaking up fights in the back of my classroom, memories that are quick to surge up and flood me with adrenaline despite the trusting relationships I've built with my students, the leadership work they've done over the years and the creative challenges we've faced together while developing a musical theater program at Bronx Prep.
The chanting gets louder. I race down the hall.
When I get to the scene, the circle of kids unknots itself and I struggle to make sense of what I'm seeing. George — the student on the floor — is laughing so hard he can barely breathe. The boy kneeling over him is not punching him, but hugging him and slapping him on the back with enough enthusiasm and force to have toppled them both over. Several of the boys around them are wiping tears out of their eyes. At first I assume they're tears of laughter.
I ask what's going on.
A few days ago I got an email that changed everything.
The cast of “Guys and Dolls” take their bows
It’s been a full month — and a seemingly endless succession of graduations, end-of-the-year recitals, awards ceremonies and fundraising benefits — since the kids I teach in the South Bronx put on our school’s annual spring musical, the 1950’s classic, “Guys and Dolls.” This year’s rehearsal process served up an especially overwhelming array of challenges and behind-the-scenes mayhem, all intensified by the parallel unfolding of my second pregnancy. (In case you missed them, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our 100-day countdown to opening night.)
“Well, OK…” you might be wondering, “So, after all of that dramatic build-up … how did the actual show go? (And why has it taken you so darn long to write about it?)”
Well, if you had asked me last week, before the email arrived, I might have heaved an exhausted sigh and launched into what, in the end, would’ve amounted to a sob story.
For starters, I would’ve told you that due to insane scheduling conflicts, our opening night performance was the first time we’d ever had the whole cast together, so it ran more like a dress rehearsal than an actual show, with huge chunks of missed dialogue, brutally slow pacing, and countless costume and prop malfunctions.
Curtain call at the final dress rehearsalIn case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of our 100-day countdown to opening night of last week’s performance of “Guys and Dolls” in the South Bronx.
What follows is the saga’s final chapter: a steady crescendo of logistical challenges, costume malfunctions, police confrontations, cast-member meltdowns, parental confrontations, laryngitis attacks, and other behind-the-scenes drama — all leading up to a show that, while it may not win us any Tony Awards, nonetheless confirmed my belief in the transformational power of making art with young people, obstacles be damned.
28 days until opening night
We’re missing 30 percent of the cast yet again today (SAT prep, Regents prep, storytelling workshop, talent show rehearsal, baseball practice, didn’t-read-rehearsal-schedule, dentist appointment, forgot, mom-won’t-let-her-come-because-she’s-on-punishment, remembered-but-skipped-anyway, on-probation-for-skipping-yesterday, on-probation-for-grades, on-probation-for-being-disrespectful-about-being-on-probation). The only upside is that dedicated fifth-graders like set crew member Aminata get to step in as understudies and show off their acting chops.
25 days until opening night
Can’t use the stage again this afternoon because we got bumped by the talent show folks. After half an hour of looking for a space during which a substantial portion of the already-diminished cast scatters and has to be rounded up by a crew of high school helpers, we cram into a vacant vestibule with a boom box. By the time we buckle down to work with 15 minutes left to rehearse, I’m wiped out. Granted, no one put a gun to my head and demanded I direct a full-length Broadway show with a huge cast in a space-challenged school while six months pregnant. That one’s on me.
After eight years of making theater with urban teenagers and witnessing how challenges can be turned into fuel for creativity, I know that Orson Wells was onto something when he said that “the true enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” That’s all well and good, but I’m pretty sure my man Orson never tried putting on a full-length Broadway musical with a hundred South Bronx teenagers on a tiny stage in a school gym while pregnant and raising a 2-year-old.
Poster advertising the performance outside Room 201
Here’s Part 1 of a condensed 100-day countdown to our production of “Guys and Dolls,” in performance at Bronx Prep May 24-26. Witness the mayhem, the misery, and the small moments of grace in the midst of it all, and stay tuned for Part 2 next week.
100 days until opening night
We haven’t even decided which show we’re doing this year and already we can’t seem to catch a break. I find out today that we can’t get a performance license for the “The Color Purple,” which is the musical the student leaders of the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy have been clamoring to put on at school ever since they saw it on Broadway two years ago.
I’m sorry that kids who’ve shown such strong initiative won’t get their first choice, and that the now-tight timing means that teachers, not students, will choose the show this year, but I can’t say I’m personally devastated by the news. Deep in the grip of first-trimester crankiness and bracing against one of the coldest, dreariest winters on record, I have to admit that swapping out an emotionally wrenching drama for some good old fashioned jazz-hands sounds like a great idea to me right now.
98 days until opening night
In keeping with tradition, we announce the spring show with a dramatic unveiling of a bulletin board outside of room 201. This year’s crowd of curious kids and teachers is bigger than ever.
"I can't do this, Ms. Q. These kids hate me." Eleventh-grader Ruth presses her forehead to the wall in the corner of the art room and sighs.
When my colleague Andrew Simon and I teamed up with Ruth and several other high school students last summer to create the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy, we all knew we were taking on a challenge. The program serves about 60 kids in grades 5-12. The kids are expected to grapple with sophisticated texts spanning poetry, prose, theater, musical theater and original oratory. And the whole thing rests on a model of peer mentoring and student leadership that represents a pretty radical shift away from the rigid, top-down culture I found when I first came to Bronx Prep as a theater teacher eight years ago.
In the months that I've been mentoring Ruth and her peers as directors and designers for our first-ever student-led musical, "Aladdin," she's has been the model of grace under pressure. Now I watch her bury her face in her hands and cry.
"All I want to do is support them so they can put on an awesome show," she says between sobs, gesturing to the room next door where she's left the cast of 40 fifth- through eighth-graders in the hands of her 11th-grade co-director. "But they won't listen. So I have to be the bad guy. I don't know what else to do. I yell. I give them detentions. I threaten to call parents. None of it works. And now they hate me."
Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.
I know exactly what Ruth is going through. My own trial-by-fire as a first-year teacher may have played out nearly a decade ago, but this current experiment in student leadership has catapulted me right back to my own early days in the classroom, reliving everything the young leaders are currently facing-all the anxiety, the fear of failure, and the frustration that comes from wanting to do creative work with kids and instead feeling like a glorified traffic cop, and an incompetent one at that.
"Wait — what? I thought you were Buddhist, Ms. Q," says Simone, a talented ninth-grade member of the theater program and speech team I coach at my South Bronx school.
"Nope," I say. "I do a lot of yoga, but that doesn't automatically make a person a Buddhist. Technically, I'm Jewish."
Jewish. It's still weird for me to say this.
"Wow, I had no idea," says Simone. Then she gestures to the open paperback on the desk in front of her. "What a weird coincidence," she says.
I'm sitting in a vacated classroom after school with Simone and her sister Sahirah, who are turning Lois Lowry's classic young adult Holocaust novel "Number the Stars" into a 10-minute theater piece.
The whole situation is remarkable for a few reasons.
Number one, the sisters have taken the initiative to find their own piece of literature to adapt for competitive performance.