It happened again the other day. As an usher, I got to watch Nina Simone: Four Women with predominantly students of color in the Boss Stage, and any squirming in the seats stopped once they figured out that this play is special. The characters on stage talk about racism, colorism, feminism and the toll but also strength of facing all the -isms on a daily basis in the frank way that’s not permitted in polite society. Finally, someone is openly articulating aspects of the truth of their daily experiences, and they can relate. They lean forward to watch and listen, fully engaged.
It’s not always this way when I watch a play with students. One of my very first experiences as an usher was to witness rows of predominantly white students from a suburban school laugh throughout an intense scene of the teenage Esperanza in anguish from having been assaulted in The House on Mango Street. This seemed not to be nervous, but mocking, laughter. That was frightening to behold for me and, from what I could tell by their faces, the cast as well. This was the same school group from whence a student addressed me as, “Hey, Hiroshima!” to get my attention to make a request (which I did not grant).
There are also times when students seem to talk a lot during a play. More often than not, such a group may be first-timers to live theatre, only having watched shows on television. They are, thus, used to being able to openly comment as a performance unfolds. But there are also first-time theatre-going groups that are so captivated by the play’s reality that they will, for instance, as a group of Hmong students did last season, all turn their heads to look when Anne, in The Diary of Anne Frank, points beyond their heads at an imaginary sky. Regardless of how first-timers react, we feel privileged that they’ve chosen Park Square to be their first exposure to live theatre.
Coming to a performance at Park Square Theatre is an educational experience for school groups, not only in the academic sense but also in the life-learning sense. They come face to face with social issues but also with themselves–who they are and who they want to become. The latter may involve gaining personal perspective on respectful engagement or even the discovery of a new passion to pursue.
Sitting in the dark with students in a theatre is, more often than not, a rewarding experience. You know that the young audience member who comes out may not be the same person who’d gone in. As an usher, it makes me lean forward and pay attention, fully engaged.