First Person

Broadway In El Barrio (And The Bronx) For A New Era

2013-03-11-Aida.jpgFlashback to early last month:

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a cold February night in Washington Heights. The huge crowd outside of the United Palace Theater is anxious about missing the opening number of tonight’s one-night-only “In The Heights” benefit performance. When the show’s writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda races around the block, high-fiving fans and hollering, “We don’t start until y’all get inside!” people whoop and cheer. But our students barely notice their idol blowing by. They’re too wrapped up belting a cappella versions of the show’s greatest hits. Auditions for our school’s production of “In The Heights” are still a week away, but the kids have already memorized the whole score.

In the history of our performing arts program, I’ve never seen kids so amped up about a show before. But then, I can’t say I’m surprised.

For a decade, the kids in our program have been stretching far outside their cultural comfort zones to put on musicals that have little do to with their own life experiences. It doesn’t matter that we’ve intentionally chosen a broad range of shows, including ones that prominently feature people of color, like “Once On This Island” and “Aida.” At the end of the day, the French Antilles and the shores of Nubia are still a far cry from the corner of 172nd Street and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. And each of those shows, like every other show we’ve done — with the lone exception of “The Wiz” whose composer/lyricist is African-American — was created by white people.

It’s not like we weren’t trying to find Broadway musicals that could have hit home more directly. They just weren’t out there.
So when I first saw “In The Heights” on Broadway five years ago and found a stage packed full of performers who looked exactly like the students I teach, telling stories that Lin-Manuel Miranda could have overheard in our school’s hallways, I knew our students’ response to the show was going to be epic.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think that musical theater’s whole cultural landscape would shift overnight as a result of one show. If nothing else, the almost all-white Broadway crowd around me back in 2008 was a clear indication of how much work remained to be done in terms of access.

But ever since “In The Heights” has been on the scene, I’ve been less worried about young African-American and Latino actors coming out of our program after playing lead roles in “Les Misérables” only to find that their best hope in the professional world is getting cast as “Thug #3” or the lead character’s “Sassy Best Friend.”
We’ve had to wait the better part of five years for the amateur licensing rights to “In The Heights” to become available, but the time has arrived. And now we’re kicking off our creative process with a field trip to see the original Broadway cast show us how it’s done.

As we finally make our way to our seats inside the United Palace Theater, one of my students looks around at the capacity crowd, does her best “Home Alone” shocked face and nudges me playfully. “Yo, Ms. Q,” she says, “There’s a lot of black and brown people in here!”

A combination of the show’s widespread popularity and organizers’ efforts to reach a broader audience with $30 tickets for Upper Manhattan residents means that the crowd is more diverse than any group of theater-goers I’ve ever seen. (And there’s reason to hope that this demographic shift may be part of a wider trend, since the evening’s proceeds benefit The Broadway League’s Viva Broadway initiative, a new audience development partnership with the Hispanic community to help bridge the world of Broadway with Latino audiences around the country, as well as Family First Nights, a nationwide program specifically designed to encourage at risk families to attend theater on a regular basis.)
The rest of the evening is a blur. The audience is cheering and singing along throughout most of the show. Actors pause before the big laugh lines so the audience can shout them out en masse. At the curtain call the whole place leaps up, dancing to the music and waving Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican flags. We haven’t come prepared for this Rocky Horror Picture Show-level of audience participation, but we join in happily.

The emotional high of the evening sets the scene perfectly for auditions for “In The Heights” at our school. This year’s turnout is enormous and includes an unprecedented number of first-time participants.

At the callback, one 12th-grade newbie named Chris says,

There’s no way I would’ve considered trying out if we hadn’t been doing this particular show… Let’s just say musical theater was never really my thing. But being Dominican, these characters and the stories they’re telling through the music and the dance all really hit home for me.

Once auditions are behind us and rehearsals begin, the students show up with a level of professionalism and initiative unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Gone are the days of pulling teeth, begging actors to get focused and learn their lines. These kids are off-book at the first read-through, leaping up to perform each song fully memorized with provisional blocking and improvised choreography already in place.
When our leading man discovers that Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has “liked” a rehearsal photo of him posted on Facebook, his comment is the following:

“Omg omg omg, my heart’s gonna blow up!!!”

And while I like to think I’m immune to celebrity worship, here’s what I comment back to him:

“Yeah. I feel you, dude. Me, too.”

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.