Back in 2000, Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy filmed a project about 2 teachers that had no budget and no stage and 2 dozen students but wanted to put on a play. It’s called OT: Our Town and was released in 2002. It’s a wonderfully crafted piece. Click on the link above and you can watch the whole thing on Hulu.com.
The two teachers, Catherine Borek and Karen Green, from Dominguez High School in Compton, CA wanted to put on a play. That play would be Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It would be the first play at this school in over 20 years!!
The doc opens to interviews with some of the students who talk about the school spirit, or lack thereof, and it’s problems and underlying causes. They are very bright, occasionally inarticulate, but all of them were engaging. They understand that people have a preconceived ideas of the town of Compton and it’s residents. They are aware that many, many people think that Compton is only full of thugs and other unsavory people.
The young lady, Ebony who ends up becoming the Stage Manager, says, with the utmost honesty, that the events of the year are as follows: “homecoming, riots, prom, and graduation.” Ebony and her classmate spoke of how often there were fights in the school between the different groups of students, which are primarily African-Americans and Latinos. The main line of thought is that it’s pent up frustration that causes these violent flare ups. The frustration stems from the poor quality of education that the students are receiving. With public schools needing money so badly, the curriculum tends to be more busy work and less thought provoking and leadership building type exercises that are in abundance in the private schools. Not only that, teachers in public schools make a substantial amount of money LESS than private school teachers while dealing with overflowing classrooms. I feel like if the students can see this degradation of their quality of education, you KNOW it’s bad!
I watched with full attention and I actually felt myself hoping that the teachers succeed. Throughout the piece, you see how Our Town really is every town. The themes of the play are so simple; they are what everyone experiences through life. The play is broken up into three themes: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and finally Death.
These two teachers, after convincing the students how this old play with it’s very caucasian cast is similar to their lives, were determined to pull off the seemingly impossible. By infusing this play with images of Compton and personal pictures, it really drives home how it’s easy to make this play fit it’s surroundings. The only thing that stood in the way seemed to be school spirit. The school itself was only supportive of one thing and it was their basketball team. In the gym, banners hung crookedly on the walls signifying championships and various titles held. In one segment, Kennedy asked a student why they couldn’t use the gym for the stage and the student said that the coach doesn’t allow anyone other than his team to make use of it.
It makes me incredibly sad that something as enriching as the Arts always takes a backseat to athletics. Something that can have an effect on the world with millions and millions of participants will never be as highly prized as any sport regardless of how inane that sport is. Golf, anyone? A comedian once said, “how is that a sport? You take away the ball, and it’s just walking.” Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand that sports builds leadership and team work abilities, and in public schools that is much needed. But why does it always have to be the one thing that only a very few people can take part in that a school prefers to hold holy? At least in theatre, you have set, light, and sound design; costumes to be created; make up and wigs to put together; of course actors and crew to pull the whole thing off; and if it’s a musical, there’s the whole music section to add!! All those people working toward a common goal. On top of that, there needs to be someone to help guide each of those groups so that all the sections of the show fit together. But then what do you get? Oh yeah, another vehicle to build leadership and team building skills. How many MORE lives are being positively affected?
That production of Our Town sold out completely. The long hard road it took to make this play happen proves to have been worth it. The hand crafted signs that were created with markers and construction paper and posted throughout the school paid off. The audience was filled with parents students and staff who laughed hysterically at times and cried. Those 24 kids performed their hearts out and you could see how much the crowd and the actors enjoyed the show.
The year after the documentary took place, Ms. Borek and Ms. Green decided to put on another play. It was a stage version of the movie “Stand and Deliver.” Not only was it another sold out show, but Ms. Borek and Ms. Green were given a $5000 budget!! Guess what else happened? There hadn’t been a riot at that school in over two years.
As Ebony says: “I think we broke down a lot of the thoughts that people have about Compton. You know, it just shows, you know that people are people. And it really doesn’t matter about race or background and where your from. We kind of made it a universal message. And then, other people, you know – people who live in Idaho or something, can even relate to us. That we’re not that different. But we’re way different from what you think we are.”
Since OT: our town, Dominquez High School has since seen not only “Stand and Deliver” but S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and “Inherit the Wind.” All of which sold out completely. At the time of “Inherit the Wind,” the drama class still didn’t have a stage. The site for Dominguez High is out of commission at the time of this post, but there is no mention of any sort of auditorium in any of the school district info.