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.
24 days until opening night
The ninth-grader playing “Harry the Horse” is the only cast member who’s met today’s deadline for getting his lines memorized. Since he’s no longer struggling with the words, he’s got the confidence to start transforming a usually forgettable bit part into pure comic genius. Every time he opens his mouth he sends us all into hysterics.
18 days until opening night
Julie, our adult set crew mentor, on the phone near tears last night, after the talented but troubled 10th-grader she’s been mentoring as stage manager storms out of yet another set crew session: “Kate, you have no idea how much I love that girl.”
Same 10th-grade girl, in the hallway near tears today: “Ms. Q, you have no idea how much that woman hates me.”
16 days until opening night
The guys’ dances and scenes are looking great. It’s a blast to watch the older high school kids taking pointers from the younger actors, some of whom are literally half their size.
Unfortunately, the girls’ scenes are plagued by technical problems. Tonight we try to stage their stylized burlesque number, “Take Back Your Mink,” but since we’ve never had a proper costume fitting due to poor attendance, the choreography issues we’re supposed to be addressing are eclipsed by tear-away gowns that either fall down too early or can’t be yanked off no matter how hard the girls try.
11 days until opening night
There was a scuffle today between two groups of middle school boys. Rehearsal ground to a halt and we had a long conversation about how, in theater — as in life — you sometimes have to think of the good of the group and resist the urge to fight back when you feel wronged.
One of the eighth-graders speaks up. “Sorry, Ms. Q,” he says, “but that’s not how I was raised. My mother says that if someone disrespects me or hits me, I’m supposed to come back at them three times as hard.”
When I speak to this kid’s mom on the phone tonight she tells me matter-of-factly that I don’t know the first thing about raising a child in the ‘hood.
She’s right. I let her know that I’m struggling to help her son navigate the different cultural rules of street life versus school life. She softens. We talk a while. By the end of the conversation she’s asking me about my pregnancy and my two year old daughter at home. It hits me that, as much as I love making actual theater with kids, it’s really the conversations like these that keep me coming back to put on these crazy shows year after year.
9 days until opening night
Today the whole 12th grade class leaves for a four-day senior trip. Reeeeally bad timing. All six of our main leads are seniors and most of them are in tough shape preparation-wise.
Sky — the kid who almost got kicked out of the show because of his grades — has pulled himself together, but only barely, and has been inconsistent with follow-through.
Our new Nathan — the understudy for the student who was expelled from school — is doing great, but he’s never been in a play before and he doesn’t know his lines.
Sarah has been stellar on attendance, but she’s stretched thin with academics and shaky on her songs.
Adelaide is bursting with talent that until recently has been buried under a sour, defensive attitude. She finally opened up last week about her personal struggles and since then, she’s been eager, respectful and flexible. Still, I’m worried the trip will derail her and her progress will backslide.
8 days until opening night
The set crew has been acting flaky lately, but tonight they stayed and worked late. We celebrated with a big family-style dinner.
Julie and her 10th-grade stage manager have worked through their drama. The girl’s mother says she’s never seen her daughter more committed or dedicated to anything in her life.
7 days until opening night
Former Bronx Prep theater stars Chris Moncrief and Denisse Polanco come back from college to help out with the show. Chris just finished his freshman year at Syracuse; Denisse graduated a few days ago from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Having them around and willing to work hard brings a huge rush of fresh energy.
6 days until opening night
It’s Chris and Denisse’s second day on the job and we decide to crank hard and pull a late night organizing costumes. At 1:30 a.m. we call it quits. While they sweep the gym, I unpack the box with the remaining props ordered from Amazon — satin gloves, gangster hats, fake cash and a toy gun — and discover I’ve somehow mistakenly ordered a real BB gun with real bullets. Hands shaking, thinking of the kid who plays Nathan who was shot in the shoulder in a drive-by earlier in the year (and who ironically has to sing the lyrics “Sue me, sue me, shoot bullets through me”), I hastily pack the gun into my backpack to bring home and give Chris money to go to the costume shop tomorrow and pick up a fake.
5 days until opening night
This afternoon I leave the cast with the musical director for a few minutes to step outside and reason with the cops who are ticketing the van idling by the gym door while a kid unloads rented speakers.
Expecting a respectful exchange, I ask one of the officers to give us a break considering the positive work we’re doing with kids from the neighborhood.
“Oh, changing the world one life at a time, are we?” he sneers at me. “Well, if you’re really making such a difference, who’s inside watching the children while you’re out here talking to me? You letting the inmates run the prison in there?”
All my big talk about the value of civil discourse evaporates in a haze of mama-bear rage and I have to be physically ushered back inside before I start running my mouth and getting us into more trouble. Not my finest moment.
3 days until opening night
Today the cast is distracted to the point of dysfunction over The Rapture. While fifth- and sixth-graders disrupt dress rehearsal huddled in a corner of the gym praying that the world doesn’t end, I’m just praying that whoever took Stephanie’s $20 gives it back. Both the specter of the apocalypse and the apparent reality that we have a thief in our midst are wreaking havoc on morale.
At 6 p.m. the world doesn’t end. At 6:02 p.m.the $20 bill is found crumpled up under the same bleachers where it was taken from Stephanie’s wallet.
No accompanying choir of angels in either case — but both outcomes are welcome upgrades.
2 days until opening night
There are many reasons to panic tonight. The girls’ costumes still aren’t finished. Crew is scrambling to complete the set. Props have gone missing. The lighting board is mysteriously on the fritz and so is the voice of one of our male leads. But the biggest, most infuriating issue is that most of the kids still aren’t solid on their lines. I derive a moment of bleak satisfaction overhearing Chris using exactly the same language with a kid that I used on him at this same time in the same context last year: “Dude, I just can’t learn the lines for you, you know?”
1 day until opening night
At midnight tonight, Chris and Denisse and I come back upstairs after a long, exhausting dress rehearsal to find the classroom that doubles as a changing room strewn with costumes, props and kids’ belongings.
I collapse in a chair and tell Chris and Denisse how sorry I am that the build-up to the show has been so tough this year. I feel miserable.
Denisse starts picking up costume items and folding them. Then she turns to me and says, “Are you kidding me? I live for this. Life would be so stale and sad and boring without this kind of stress. Anything worth doing is worth freaking out over, you know?”
I smile at her, and the frustration recedes a little. I think about the kids who have pulled their grades up from failing in order to stay in the cast. The parents and teachers who have been there for us. The kids and adults who have volunteered building sets, teaching dances, making costumes and running lights. The actors who I know will dig deep tomorrow and miraculously pull through — because they always do.
And at that moment, there is no place I’d rather be than here with my former students in a messy South Bronx classroom at midnight before opening night, freaking out.
Up next: show photos and a recap of the performances, reflections from kids in their own words, and more stories from behind the scenes.
As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school’s administration.