In a black–box theater at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, rehearsals are under way for a production of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. “I’d get another job if I could,” Joe Mitchell, a Depression-era cab driver, pleads to his wife. “There’s no work—you know it.” “I only know we’re at the bottom of the ocean,” she replies.
The play resonates powerfully in the present economic climate—but perhaps no more so than on this particular stage, where the actors are students from Bushwick High School, a predominantly black and Hispanic school that lets in roughly 800 freshmen each year but graduates only a quarter of that number. Speaking the lines of 1930s wage workers in their Puerto Rican accents, the actors bring a poignant new level of meaning to the play. But thanks to Stephen Haff, a literature teacher at Bushwick, the students rehearsing at Fordham are rising from the depths—not only graduating from high school, but also going to college.
Haff, who recalls stepping in puddles of students’ blood in the hallways and says he often breaks up violent fights in the classroom, runs a makeshift extracurricular theater program that—with no funding from the school—is currently in production on three plays, which include Hamlet and Garcia-Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba in addition to the Odets. The drama project started two years ago, with an English class exercise in which students rewrote scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Inspired by the kids’ responses, Haff decided to give interested students a chance to perform what they have come to call “ghetto” Shakespeare, partially delivered in Spanish and street slang, in front of an audience.
“The first couple times I called meetings nobody showed up,” recalls Haff, a playwright. “Then I had to go after them and say, ‘You said you wanted to do this, do you want to do this? OK, what part do you want to play?’ I’d just meet with one or two whenever I grabbed them, and then patch it all together.” The play’s Romeo skipped rehearsals—and school—for two weeks, but with Haff’s encouragement returned and memorized all his lines in time for the performance. In fact, the first time the whole cast was intact for a run-through was at the first performance in front of an audience. But Romeo y Julieta—which uses no costumes, no sets, and only as many props as can fit in a plastic shopping bag—has since toured theaters around the city and even traveled to Bennington College in Vermont. At the final performance last month, at the Performing Garage, a standing-room-only crowd that included fellow students, parents, and actor Willem Dafoe was encouraged to participate in the fight scenes —which they did enthusiastically, erupting into rousing shouts and taunts, then quickly quieting down to watch the drama unfold. The effect on the students of performing before an audience has been, as Haff puts it, “like a Hollywood movie.”
“They’re accustomed to not finishing things,” says Haff, who was rewarded this year with permission to offer a drama class for credit to graduating seniors. “There’s a culture of dropouts and settling for less. There’s a prevailing failure in the air. So to see something through over an extended period of time and come back to it again and again and have success and be validated publicly by crowds is new and extremely empowering. It’s unlike anything they’ve done.” The students, who now think of themselves as a mini company, have adopted the name Real People Theater.
Haff’s extracurricular program has amounted to nothing less than a revolution in the lives of his students—two of whom have been admitted to Bennington for the fall. “At the beginning I just did it because I didn’t want to go to class,” admits Flakoo Jimenez of his inauspicious start in the acting program. Jimenez, a Bushwick senior, not long ago belonged to a well-known violent gang. He says his involvement in Romeo y Julieta changed the way his other teachers responded to him, and he began making an effort to pass his classes. When Romeo traveled to Bennington, Jimenez was awestruck. “I went up there and it was perfect,” he says. “Academic paradise. My grades are super-low, and they told me if it wasn’t for the acting thing, they wouldn’t have let me in.”
Amanda Rodriguez was awarded a scholarship to Keystone College in Pennsylvania. “Going to college is a significant thing for people from Bushwick,” says Rodriguez. “It’s a big thing to get a high school diploma. No one in my house has one.”
Waiting for Lefty, which will be performed at Fordham on—appropriately—May 1, is a collaboration between the Bushwick students and senior directing students at the university, a relationship that may become an ongoing part of the Fordham curriculum. Elizabeth Margid, head of Fordham’s directing program, says the project lets the high schoolers see what it’s like to go to college and study theater for real. It also gives them a chance to be taken seriously.
“They were so scared the first time they went to a college—they thought they’d be judged,” says Haff. “But there they were, enlightening and exciting the college students and afterward eating pizza with them, kind of breaking bread with them, and suddenly they’re all peers. And for my students, even if they’re not conscious of it, that’s the beginning of the leap. They have every right to be there, just as much as any of those college students. It’s an extraordinarily effective way to get these kids excited about continuing education. Whereas the school usually does it by essentially holding a gun to their head, saying, ‘You will pass.’ ”
Waiting for Lefty will be performed at Fordham University, 33 West 60th Street, on May 1 at 1 p.m.