SMS HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH CLASS: ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
By Andrea Israel
“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.” In other words: speak what you feel, tell your truth.
That quote, from Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” epitomizes what Nathan Blom (SMS High School English teacher) is teaching his students.
And by linking literature with theater, he has discovered an invaluable way to engage his kids. His AP Lit class is currently reading “Taming of the Shrew,” which he says perfectly dovetails with heated national conversations cropping up since the election. As he explained, “I felt it was particularly significant given the political climate. My initial plan is to use it as a springboard into discussion of gender roles.”
In addition to reading plays (and myriad other literature), Blom has his students exploring acting and playwriting with the help of the Residency Project offered by the Theater Development Fund (TDF), which provides Blom with a year-long artist in residence who works with the students—in this case, theater director Stephen DiMenna, who visits once a week.
Thanks to TDF, DiMenna has been bringing playwriting to public schools for 20 years. He loves introducing theater to kids, and says SMS particularly excites him because, “I hear rampant creativity in the halls. There is a sense that this is an artists’ community. They are just so eager and hungry for theater in general, and playwriting. Plus they are smart and talented and they respect one another.” He added, “Mr. Blom is one of those truly dedicated teachers who wants to see the kids excel. I think at Special Music School the word special is really appropriate in the title.”
Last year Dimenna and Blom supervised as the 11th grade English class created a truly innovative project based on reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Called “Gatsby, The Musical,” the diversified talents of the SMS students (instrumentalists, composers, and vocalists) was apparent when they performed their interpretations—with original music and lyrics— of various chapters of the book.
Blom says, “What’s wonderful about the TDF program it how it is empowering the kids.” Indeed, SMS is very fortunate to be counted among a handful of schools who are part of the TDF Residency Project. Alongside DiMenna’s work, TDF offers Blom’s classes access to thought-provoking live theater.
Which is why, on a recent day when the first touch of winter could be felt in the air, the tenth and twelfth grades of SMS piled onto a downtown subway, heading to the Public Theater to see a production of “Party People.” The new musical fuses theater, poetry, jazz, hip-hop and politics. It is about the complicated legacies of the original Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, and was constructed from lengthy interviews with members of these organizations.
For many Americans, the name Black Panthers brings to mind a specific time in American history (1960’s-1970’s) with young, imposing-looking African-American men in berets and black leather coats, carrying rifles. The Young Lords, similarly, represents Latino outlaws of that same period working in gangs. Images of both groups were either exhilarating or terrifying, depending on your point of view. Some fifty years after both parties were founded, “Party People” recounts a less-reported history, one that was misrepresented in the media, and often left out of school textbooks: how members of these groups fought against injustice, with social objectives to provide free food and medical care for their communities, and how the FBI under Hoover actively infiltrated them, assassinating and imprisoning their leaders. There are undeniable parallels with headlines about racial conflict in today’s news. The play also explores divisions between generations with questions about what it means to be an activist (is sharing something on Facebook taking a stand? Can an elder statesmen of the 1960’s counter culture appreciate the value of hip-hop/rap music as protest?)
At the end of the show, there was a “talk back” program with the actors and playwrights. But most exciting, for many of our students, was the presence of Brother Shep, a Bronx native, and an active member of the Black Panthers since 1973 when he was just 19 years-old. (He pointed out to the students that he was barely older than they are now when he got involved.) He added that one of the greatest lessons he learned from the Black Panther Party was to give back to the communities of New York City. (Seeing Brother Shep sign autographs on a playbill was something few would have imagined half a century ago!)
Whether or not one liked the production—some SMS attendees expressed mixed feelings when questioned afterward—to a person it was thought-provoking. The day after the show, Blom asked his students to reflect on “Party People.” Several members of the senior class were passionate in their responses:
Jackie Perez wrote, “Seeing party people was like a union between history and present time. It was a combination of all the struggles faced in the U.S back in the time of the Black Panthers and today where we have the Black Lives Matter Movement. It spoke of all the things that everyone is afraid to mention. This play was awe-inspiring. It motivated me to be the positive change in this world.”
Reynaldo Hill had this to say: “I heard things that I believe will stay with me forever, such as when the female actor stated ‘There are no permanent friends or enemies. Only permanent principle.’ This goes hand in hand with the belief I’ve always had, that people die and can be killed, however beliefs are bulletproof. Imperishable.”
Caitlyn Flynn says the storyline of the musical deeply impacted her. “Party People is a show that I will definitely keep going back to in my mind for years to come. It left me incredibly uncomfortable – which I think is actually a really good thing…After the show, one of the actors told my school to ‘not let the winners rewrite history.’ Party People is so important because it reaches a humanity that is not shown about the Black Panthers- and it shows this to its audience through pure emotion and experiences, and I think that there is nothing more human than that.” She also added, “I have wanted to be in the FBI for 6 years. It was definitely hard to hear about all the horrible things they did…but instead of making me want to give up, it has made me want to be in the FBI even more. I believe in the stated principles of the FBI that fight for justice, that are champions of ‘fidelity, bravery and integrity.’”
Blom says he feels very fortunate to be working at a school focused on music, recognizing that it cultivates the spark of an artist in each of his students—whether or not they pursue music as a career— young men and women who can possibly be a voice for change. “I hope seeing the show energized them toward doing this type of work. I hope they saw this as a professional realization of what we are asking them to do in whatever genre they are comfortable with. I hope they recognized that [the theater group] cared about this issue and used their artistic skills to bring it out in a nuanced and well-thought and well- researched manner, and I hope they steal ideas from it if it energized them.”
Next up? In terms of the seniors, the first graduating class for SMS, Blom has a bigger goal—a senior project—which he believes will build on what they’ve been learning: “I want to see them being active, getting engaged in the world beyond a social media presence and taking real legitimate action in the world.”