Education

Teaching LA high schoolers about August Wilson

Center Theatre Group teaching artist Nijeul Porter works with the drama class at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School once a week as part of the August Wilson In-School Residency program.
Center Theatre Group teaching artist Nijeul Porter works with the drama class at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School once a week as part of the August Wilson In-School Residency program.
Priska Neely/ KPCC

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How would the plot of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Fences" unfold on Twitter?

Students in a drama class at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School tried to answer that question last week, reimagining dialogue from the play about an African-American family in 1957 Pittsburgh in 140-character messages.

"Forget about your work, dude, and focus on your son’s future," senior Nowe Fernandez said to the class, reading a tweet he wrote from the perspective of Bono, best friend to main character Troy Maxson.

"He was actually the first person that pointed out the whole literal and figurative meaning of the whole fence idea," Fernandez explained. "So I feel like Bono understood exactly what Troy was doing with his son and he just didn't really agree with that."

These students are taking part in the Center Theatre Group's August Wilson In-School Residency program. Alongside an annual monologue competition for high school actors, the theater company celebrate's Wilson's work by giving students a chance for in-depth study of the playwright and his work. 

Besides the class at Ánimo, students at East Los Angeles Performing Arts Magnet and Washington Preparatory High School are participating. Over the course of a semester they unpack one of Wilson's plays and conduct a more general study of his work and its relevance.

The students will be in the audience at the Mark Taper Forum Monday night watching twelve of their peers compete in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. And as part of  a final project, the students will perform a monologue from one of Wilson’s plays in class.

Fences has been the subject of conversation in a lot of American homes recently, as the film adaptation starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture. Davis won the award for supporting actress for her portrayal of Maxson's wife, Rose.

The tweeting exercise at Ánimo Leadership was designed to help the students get into the heads of the characters in "Fences."

"If they had these profiles today, what would they talk about?" asked Center Theatre Group teaching artist Nijeul Porter, who leads the sessions with the students. What content would they produce about love? What content would they produce about betrayal?" 

During one activity, students at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School condensed the plot of
During one activity, students at Ánimo Leadership Charter High School condensed the plot of "Fences" into a tweet.
Priska Neely/KPCC

Students use social media "every day, it's at their fingertips," added Porter, "and I am constantly trying to figure out how we take mediums that we use on a day-to-day basis, how to merge that with learning."

A few weeks into the residency, it's clear that the students are deeply submerged in the world of "Fences." At one point in class, a debate breaks out over whether Rose is strong or weak in her decision to stay with Troy even though he cheated on her.

"It takes time to really understand a play," said senior Kelvin Yam. "You can read it off the first bat but you’re not always gonna understand what it says, so I feel like hitting it again and again you're really exposing yourself to new understandings." 

High school teachers apply each year to be a part of the program; four are selected to have Center Theatre Group teaching artists visit their classrooms to lead the weekly workshops.

“I think having the visiting artist really inspires the kids," said Ánimo Leadership drama teacher Craig Robinson. "I think it’s really important to develop relationships with the local theaters just so kids are aware" of the high quality performing arts spaces in L.A., he said.