Friday, March 23, 2012

Our Town: Straight Outta Compton

This week, I showed my classes a documentary called OT: Our Town. It's about a production of the Thornton Wilder play "Our Town" at Dominguez High School in Comption, Los Angeles. It was the first play performed at the school in over 20 years.

The idea for the play came from a young English teacher, Catherine Borek, who saw students get genuinely excited about plays in her literature courses. She saw a lack in the educational programs at that high school, and decided to let students express themselves as creative people, despite the stereotypes and the low standards expected of them by the administration.

At first the students were reluctant. The black and latino students in her class could not relate to an all white farming community in the American midwest in 1902, where the play is set. They lived in 2002, in urban Los Angeles, a place associated with gangs, violence…and basketball.

The real emphasis at Dominguez high school was basketball. The funding, programs, and facilities all pointed not to education, but sports. They had a nice gymnasium with fancy uniforms, cheerleaders, a band…but no auditorium. Because the basketball coach would not allow the students to use the gym for their play, they had to use the old cafeteria.

Despite their lack of a budget and resources, the students began to embrace the play as an outlet to say something important about their community. They incorporated clothing, slang, and references to real things in their community...both good and bad. A few days before the production, when many students were afraid no one would care, Miss Borek sat them all down and said, "In ten or fifteen years, when this school has a drama program, you will be able to look back and say 'I started that. I was there when it was hard, when there was no funding or resources and we had to do it only for love.'"

Despite obstacles and struggles, the students put on Our Town to a sold-out cafeteria. Many of the students' parents, who had never seen their child perform in any extra-curricular activities, attended the show, and were blown away. The next year, the fledgling drama department got a $5,000 budget.

The film is about many things, but it could be interpreted as an extended argument for the importance of arts programs in schools. Art, theater, and dance programs are often the first ones to be cut. But, as the film shows, these types of programs are what inspire students to imagine not what people expect of them, but what they are actually capable of. After the production, one of the student actors says, "I don't want to be in a gang. I want to be president."

This is the trailer. OT: Our Town is available on Netflix instant watch. Watch it!

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