Fela! and Student Performances

This is actually from late December.  I apparently forgot to click “publish.”  Oops.

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I was thinking to myself today, walking to the last day of a residency around Fela! at a school in the Bronx, that I am am so lucky.  It was 7:25 in the morning and I had woken up at 5:45 am to get there in time, it was about 15 degrees outside with the wind chill factor.  But, I got to watch Fela! with an entire theater full of NYC Public School students and it was one of the most joyous theatrical experiences I’ve ever been a part of.  I looked down the row about 15 minutes into the show and saw faces filled with wonder.  During the Q&A, Sahr, who played Fela, told the audience that they were the very best audience they had ever had.  I had seen this in his eyes when at the top of the show, he says to the crowd, “Everybody say, ‘Yea, yea” and hundreds of high school students thundered back, “YEA, YEA!”  He had to turn away, smiling at the wonder of all those voices who wanted to go on this journey with him.

But, I’m getting away from myself.  I’ve had to be part of a number of student cumulative performances in the last week or two.  Residencies wrapping up, school administrators, parents and teachers often like to see a product, a piece of theater that students make to show what they can do.  Now, unlike creating paintings or sculpture or performing songs on musical instruments, theater is a bit tricker to have a final showing.  Many students feel extremely naked onstage.  And you have to push all you know, all your energy and guts and feeling into this one moment when you perform, instead of showing a painting you’ve been working on for weeks.  Or being able to play in a student band with 35 other students.

What I witnessed today was this:

Being an extremely short residency (4 workshops taught by me, 4 by the classroom teacher), there really isn’t time to build a culminating performance.

In this, my fourth session with them, I went in thinking that I would help to take their writing into performance, emphasizing that it was an experiment, a rehearsal, a work in progress.  We had 45 minutes, really 30 when most folks had trickled in.  It was an impossibly short period of time to make anything, but we had to try.

I scaffolded with them a bit, reminded them of what we did with beats and call and response during our first session with wonderful TA percussionist and hoofer LeeAnet Noble.  And I had them look at letters I’d had them generate last time, writing to someone who they would fight for and telling them why, inspired by the songs in Fela!  (Everyone who had been in class wrote a letter, even if they showed up to class late, because somehow, everyone wants to tell the people that they love the most, who they would fight for the most, why they are beloved.)

I then put them into groups and asked them to choose their two favorite lines, add percussion, add call and response and create a piece to share.  The piece had between 2-5 other students letters represented.

They rehearsed.

They shared and their pieces were touching and ambitious.  Dense, rich, dangerous.

And it reminded me, art can be made.  It can be made quickly with decent scaffolding.  And most importantly, the best art is made when it comes out of what the young people have to say.  This sounds obvious.   But I think that we forget this all the time.  I have to remember this and make it the root of what I do.

And yeah, I’m lucky because I got to see Fela! twice in order to make this residency happen.  But I’m also lucky because everything I learned in that theater and then in the classroom, stays with me.  And if I do anything right, it’ll show up in my work.

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