Education

How a Chinatown School Is Bringing Diversity to Theater

A program founded by a former Broadway star is part of a growing movement to introduce students to theater at younger ages 

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It’s 3 p.m. at Public School 124, also known as Yung Wing School, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and the theater club kids are ready to break a leg. There are just a few weeks left until their big trip to Atlanta for a three-day event called the Junior Theater Festival, and they’re hoping to add another trophy to the assortment that fills the school’s front lobby.

“Sit up straight!” calls out instructor Kyle Garvin from the base of the stage. “Pretend there’s a string attached to your head, and it’s pulling you up!” Each of the 24 students, from grades three through five, suddenly grows an inch taller. An upbeat show tune adapted from the animated movie Madagascar fills the auditorium. One row of children, sitting with their backs to the instructor, turns and beams dazzling, thousand-watt smiles at an imaginary crowd. “It’s showtiiime!” they sing. Another row turns: “Showtime!” A third row turns. At the top of their lungs, they sing, “Showtime!” and leap to their feet.

From the back of the auditorium, their coach, former Broadway dancer and choreographer Baayork Lee, looks on smiling. “You should have seen them at the beginning of the year,” she says. “Some of them were so shy. They wouldn’t even open their mouths to sing. Or they would barely sing above a whisper. By the end of the term, they completely open up.”

Like theater itself, this after-school program is a collaborative effort. Now in its ninth year, it was developed with funding and expertise Lee secured through her theater-world connections, is taught by instructors from a nonprofit Lee co-founded called the National Asian Artists Project (NAAP), and is kept afloat through the devotion — and many, many bake sales — of Yung Wing’s principal, Alice Hom, and the club’s parents.

Through their efforts, along with those of other outside arts organizations, they are introducing theater to younger participants, at an age when education experts say children are especially poised to benefit from performance. And by working with a school in Chinatown, they are also bringing more diversity not just to the audience for theater, but hopefully, over time, to Broadway stages as well.

The Yung Wing theater club is a passion project for Lee, who grew up in Chinatown. When she was five, casting agents put out a call in the neighborhood for the role of Princess Ying Yaowalak in the original 1951 Broadway production of The King and I, starring Yul Brynner. Lee got the role, and it changed her life. She went on to become a professional director, actor, and choreographer, most famously developing and playing Connie Wong in the original 1975 production of A Chorus Line.

But Lee wanted to give back to Chinatown, a working-class neighborhood where she says exposure to theater is low, and where people tend to view red velvet–adorned playhouses as exclusive spaces not intended for them.

In 2005, Lee co-founded NAAP to offer summertime musical theater programs to schoolchildren in Chinatown. The organization has since expanded into other efforts aimed at raising the profile of Asian American artists, who are underrepresented in theater. (Lee won a Tony Award last June for her work with NAAP.) An annual study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition of Broadway and the sixteen top nonprofit theaters in New York City shows that from 2006 to 2016, Asian actors were hired for 3.7 percent of all roles, though Asians are 5.6 percent of the U.S. population and more than 13 percent of New York City’s population, per the 2010 census. Asians were also the group least likely to be cast in roles that did not call for a specific race.

Deciders in performing arts “say that there aren’t any good Asian actors [to cast], but we say it’s because we’re not being given the opportunity to show our stuff,” says actor and dancer Nina Zoie Lam, one of Lee’s co-founders at NAAP. The solution, says Lam, is not just casting more Asians, but also supporting more Asian directors, writers, and other positions across the entire spectrum.

Lee and Lam also noted that opportunities for Asian artists are often limited to “Asian” productions, such as Miss Saigon (a musical set in Vietnam) or Flower Drum Song (set in San Francisco’s Chinatown). At P.S. 124, the students perform such general-interest crowd-pleasers as Annie and The Music Man.

Around 2009, Lee learned about the Junior Theater Festival (JTF) in Atlanta, where students from across the country gather for three days to compete, take workshops, and nerd out over musical theater. She knew instantly that she wanted the same opportunity for students in Chinatown.

A two-year pilot program for a year-round, after-school theater club at Yung Wing was developed with the help of iTheatrics, a company founded by Timothy Allen McDonald that produces JTF and also helps create theater programs in underserved schools. The pilot was underwritten by Freddie and Myrna Gershon, a philanthropically minded theater-world couple whom McDonald had worked with before establishing his own organization. (Freddie is co-chair and CEO of the licensing company Music Theatre International.) NAAP supplied the club’s instructors, professional performers who teach in their spare time and who, says Lee, enable the children to have artistic role models who are people of color.

When the fledgling Yung Wing club first traveled to Atlanta in 2011 for JTF, it was invited to perform on the festival’s main stage, in front of 6,000 people, and as McDonald puts it, “they got a standing ovation and brought down the house.” Each year since, the club has won numerous awards at JTF, including the trophy for Outstanding Production for the best overall elementary school performance three years in a row, from 2013 to 2015, and again in 2017. “After that [first win], the parents were like, ‘Wait a minute, we have an award-winning theater club? We’ve got to do it again!’ ” says McDonald.

Indeed, the Yung Wing school parents have embraced the club wholeheartedly. After the initial two years of funding were up, they took it upon themselves to keep paying for it. It costs more than $1,000 per student in the most expensive city in the United States, in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood where the average family income is $37,362. But to the parents, it’s worth it.

“After he joined, my oldest son began to love coming to school,” says Beijing-born Feili Ye, the mother of two club members. (Her son, Aaron Wang, starred as the title character in The Music Man in the 2015–16 school year.) “I think this program is really amazing. When other parents say they’re not sure if their kids should join because they want them to focus on academics, I always tell them it actually helps with the rest of school, too.”

Another parent, Philippines-born Evelyn Leon, said theater education has brought her two daughters “improved self-confidence [and] better public speaking skills…especially with my younger child who is on the more shy side.” She noted that she only learned public speaking from a course during college, but that her elementary school–aged daughter is already able to speak confidently in front of groups.

Those benefits — not to mention the plain old desire to make school a fun, joyful place — are what drive iTheatrics’ mission. In the past, the company has worked with entities ranging from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to the New York City Department of Education to help schools develop self-sustaining theater programs. Most recently, iTheatrics completed a two-year pilot program in Cincinnati, in conjunction with the Educational Theatre Association, which will soon bring its efforts nationwide, through an initiative called JumpStart Theatre; iTheatrics also partners with local community theaters and schools to hold one-day versions of its Junior Theater Festival in such cities as Salt Lake City; Newark, New Jersey; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

McDonald estimates that his organization has helped bring theater programs into thousands of middle schools across the country. (Most high schools, he says, already have some sort of theater program.) Elementary schools like P.S. 124 are the “new frontier, because upper elementary is a great time to introduce kids to theater,” he says. “Students are in an age group where they are generalists, not specialists. While ideally they are experiencing a wide range of things like soccer, chess, robotics, and musical theater, it is important to us to make sure the arts are a part of those experiences they are having. If they have a positive experience with the arts in fourth or fifth grade — and even if that is the only positive experience — they will continue to think positively about the arts throughout their lives.”

A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report underscores the benefits of exposure to the arts. The study found an 18 percent difference between dropout rates for low-income students with high arts participation (4 percent dropout) and those with less arts involvement (22 percent). Low-income students with high levels of arts involvement also had higher GPAs, were more likely to go to college, and were three times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Yet funding for the arts currently shows no sign of rebounding from cutbacks that started with the George W. Bush–era No Child Left Behind policies and the 2008 recession. A U.S. Department of Education fact sheet put out by the Obama administration highlighted a “definite arts opportunity gap between the highest-poverty and lowest-poverty schools,” and also noted that “minority students and those from low-income households have less access to arts instruction.”

Those realities lend extra urgency to the work that iTheatrics and NAAP do. Thanks to them, that trophy case in the lobby of Yung Wing School is getting crowded. In January, the theater club traveled to Atlanta and won yet another award, for Excellence in Dance.

Sarah Chiu, a junior in high school who participated in the theater club during its second year, says the experience she had in Atlanta is a major reason she now attends Talent Unlimited, a performing arts high school in Manhattan. She recently appeared in an Off-Off Broadway production, and is thinking of becoming a playwright. “I would love to maybe write musicals and really represent the Asian American community,” she says.

But even for former classmates who have moved on to other things, says Chiu, theater club was unforgettable. “It took everyone out of their comfort zones, where we all came together as a family to support each other,” she says. “That’s something I really love about theater: When something goes wrong you usually have someone there to support you and, as the theater world would say, ‘make the show go on.’ ”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to iTheatrics as a “nonprofit”; though the company operates on a nonprofit model, it is organized as a for-profit institution.

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