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Monday, January 15, 2007

No Snarky Subject: The MLK Project at OTSFM

I was thinking of some snarky title for this entry that dealt with my Catholic-infused derangement about volunteering at Old Town. I was just thinking that I kind of suck, because I tend toward volunteering for programs that are of interest to me (as if my Day of the Dead experience didn't make that completely transparent). I mean, yes, these also happen to be at times when it's difficult for them to get volunteers, and I am, after all, schlepping 150 blocks northward at ungodly hours of the morning on my days off to corral school-aged children, but my bourgeois guilt seems to feel that every minute should be painful if I really want to claim that I'm doing something for others. This is quite possibly deranged.

So Friday's requisite chaos involved me realizing once I was well on my way that I did not have my wallet (which includes drivers license, money, etc.). This was quickly followed by a the cheery "check engine" light coming on shortly before I arrived. Once there, chaos on the OTSFM end included it being the first week of classes and me being the only volunteer there for a long while, coupled with the fact that there was, for some reason, no list of volunteers to expect. (One other who, thankfully, was quite experienced with field trips, did show up later.)

We were to have a full house of kids (400 or so from four schools, including one in my natal hood) plus a large number of guests from Chicago Writers' Theatre and others related to the MLK Project. Although the schools are allowed to arrive from 10 AM on for the 10:30 program starts, by 10:26, only one school had yet arrived. There was another delay related to getting the preshow music set, but during that time, the rest of the schools began arriving. Two of the classrooms from one of the larger schools turned out to be unable to make it, and another school (one of the smaller ones) just plain old didn't show. Hope they hadn't turned any schools away because of the "full house."

Anyway, somewhat miraculously, the show was underway a little after 10:40 AM. I missed the introductory remarks, because I was escorting a student in a wheelchair up to the balcony. As a result I was a bit confused about the performance until later on (of course, if I'd looked at the stack of study guides I was holding, much would have become clear). Rather than forcing anyone else to live in my caffeine deprived haze, I'll present the show as I now understand it. It was written by Yolanda Androzzo, who was the OTSFM Youth Outreach coordinator until late last year, based on interviews and research that she and other members of the project (I think—I'm not entirely clear on the mechanics of the project). It was directed by Ron OJ Parson (who also directed the production of Fences last season at Court Theatre, which I'd really wanted to see, but missed). The performer was Sharyon Culberson.

The conceit of the show is that a not-particularly-stellar student named Alaya is given an assignment to research the Civil Rights movement. After doing some library research, she decides to seek out people who lived through the Civil Rights movement. As she relates how she came to choose her interview subjects, slides are projected behind her, beginning with one that identifies the person and gives a quote from him or her that typifies his or her attitude toward and/or role in the civil rights movement. Culberson then fell into the character of each interviewee in turn, using only minimal props, including glasses, hats, etc., and told each story in the person's own words. Ensuing slides included relevant headlines, literal signs of the times (No Jews, No Niggers, No Dogs, etc.), pictures of related figures, and so on.

The first interviewee was The Reverend M. Earle Sardon, whose work for Civil Rights preceded, crossed paths with, and survived Dr. King. Next, she goes for the outsider perspective and interviews a coffee shop acquaintance whom she thinks of as "old. White. Probably racist," only to learn that, as a Jew in the post-World War II world, found himself keeping company with "N-words" and dogs outside all the establishments that forbid them. "Maynard" talked about his participation in Black voter registration drives, which took him to Mississippi at the same time Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were lynched.

Other perspectives from other brands of outsiders came from her teachers, including poet David Hernandez, who described how Elvis and his pompadour made young Puerto Ricans hate themselves, kinky hair and all, and how the Civil Rights movment's embrace of African culture and difference gave them away to love themselves again. Hernandez also talked about his own conviction that violent resistance was the only means to change and that it took King's violent death to change his mind. Another teacher (I think her name was Jen Weinschenk, but I've forgotten over the weekend)—an artist and the descendant of a family who lost many in the Holocaust—was drawn to the Peace Movement and told of her experiences protesting the Vietnam war.

Moving back into "gimme" candidates for interviewees in and around Chicago, "Alaya" also talks of her interviews with Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs about what moved her to found the DuSable Museum, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson about the founding of operation PUSH, his relationship with Dr. King, and so on. (With absolutely no disrespect intended to either of these, I'm giving their stories short shrift only because they were more well-known to me and, therefore, what was new to me in the performance doesn't stand out as strongly in my memory).

Interspersed with the interviews are the stories from the Civil Rights Movement that are so infamous and so painful, so fresh and so prominent in the minds of the generation before me (and two generations before these kids), that it's often assumed that everything there is to know about them is part of the collective consciousness. Alaya admits that she's heard of the names and events in most cases, but doesn't really know what happened, so she researches them and shares the stories with the audience. Among these are Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Boycott, the Mississippi Burning story, and the story of Emmett Till, each carefully embedded in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Till's story is told as a rap, with audience participation, which sounds like it could be a nightmare with surly teenagers, but worked well. (For reasons I can't quite explain, the audience, as a single voice shouting back "Till" in standard Black pronunciation to Alaya's "Emmett," really kind of got to me. That's probably horribly White [uh, guilty as charged] an probably condescending, but it moved me.)

Another point on which I'm not entirely clear is whether the material from Reverend Dr. Billy Kyles was interview or research. I suspect the later, as much of it seems to be very close to the section of the sermon linked above that begins "I’d never heard him talk about death so much as he did that night. " I suppose it's just possible, though, that a man in his position is bound to have codified, through retelling and for the sheer preservation of his sanity, his version of that last night in Memphis. Something that's not in that sermon is the story of the pillow fight that King had with Abernathy and Andrew Young. It's one of those cute, humanizing details that one wouldn't be half surprised to find had no basis in fact. Hell, I seem to have done it myself when I thought my brother is dying. I like that pillow fight of King's, so different from fighting a pillow, and I hope he did get to be silly that day.

The whole show runs about 40 minutes, and afterward the audience is given the chance to ask questions of the performer. Culberson had, by that point, more than demonstrated her acting chops, drawing laughs, tears, and whole-hearted participation from a tough crowd (tough by virtue of their age-associated tendency to find everything Lame). The questions were divided between those about the content of the show and those about the actress, her career, etc. Overall, I'm not sure the decision to have her be the focus of the Q&A was the best, simply because she's naturally not as well-versed in the material as the writers. Also, I don't know about her, but coming out of a performance always left me a little loopy, disoriented, and certainly not in shape to be answering questions about history. I know the show is meant to travel, and surely not every performance will be lucky enough to have so many of the creators behind the project present, but it does seem like they might arrange either to brief the performer or have a support person on hand who can help out answering questions on content.

Still, it's a great project and one that seemed to be very well received by kids spanning a pretty big range of both age and maturity. I wish I'd been able to hold on to one of the study guides that I'd been passing out to the teachers, both because it might've clarified some of the things I've forgotten, and because I'm interested in how the Project envisions turning itself into a more persistent learning experience. That, of course, means that not only did I learn some things and enjoy myself, I might have gotten some professional value out of my so-called "volunteer" experience. I suck as a human being.

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