Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Today's: Students Update and Peform a 2,500-Year-Old Greek Tragedy
by Clarence Williams
a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy is no easy business. But a group
of students did just that for the past several months, meeting after
school to go over the work -- and then rewriting it to depict modern
life on their Southeast Washington streets.
Aeschylus wrote "The Persians" as a morality play about
war. The students, ages 9 to 14, wrote "The Persians 2K6: Tragedy
in the Hood," about war, too, along with their fears of modern
urban life, global disaster and timeless human frailties such as
pride and arrogance.
A line or two
was forgotten when they put on the show last week at Charles Hart
Middle School, and spare beige tunics and colorful headdresses couldn't
quite conceal the T-shirts and bluejeans worn by the cast. But the
powerful writing and enthusiastic acting amazed the crowd and carried
the chorus addressed the queen, who stood with an attitude mid-stage.
The chorus members spoke words of doom -- with a lilt of street
slang in their voices.
the pride of Southeast, our young men, march away," they declared.
"We went strong, we died strong. That's it. The enemies were
also strong in their hands, their guns and those fists they use."
After the applause
and the curtain calls, 13-year-old Renita Williams said she saw
parallels between the original play and the guns and rivalries that
take so many lives on D.C. streets. "That play was just like
it is out here," she said. "It's like Barry Farm and Condon
Terrace. They were killing each other for nothing."
drama is considered the oldest existing Greek tragedy, depicting
the Persians' attack on Greece and the devastation wrought upon
their homeland after their defeat. King Xerxes, who instigated the
carnage, leads his people to death and despair. The play unfolds
in a dialogue between the main characters and a chorus of Persian
The play was
studied and rewritten by about 30 adolescents who live in the Congress
Heights community. They signed up for the D.C. Creative Writing
Workshop, a collaborative of professional writers who work with
students from Hart Middle School, Simon Elementary School and Ballou
Senior High School; the Hart students performed the play. Over the
past six years, the program has turned out 18 issues of a literary
magazine, several poetry contest award winners and an annual play
from one of the Greek classics.
a leader of the Hart-based workshop, said the playwriting teaches
teamwork, the value of hard work and the importance of peaceful
conflict resolution through the lessons of the ancients.
from a community where kids are always fighting and things are resolved
by fighting," Schwalb said. "They look at the moral issues
of these plays."
The Hart school's
version of the play describes how Xerxes led his forces of "OGs"
(Original Gangstas) and "street soldiers" with their fists,
Cadillacs and Humvees. Some set off for Maryland, and others take
the Frederick Douglass Bridge en route to Northwest Washington.
through every neighborhood for miles around and burned their churches
and robbed their carry-outs and wrote 'Xerxes was here' on every
building. . . . He even disrespected their grandmothers," according
to the script.
But the invading
army came to a deadly demise at the hands of an enemy bankrolled
by "loads of jewelry" and "a lot of drugs to sell."
The enemy fought "dirty" with brass knuckles, rocks, bricks
and unleashed pit bulls, killing most of the "youngens"
and leaving the populace to "cry like punks."
During the performance
Thursday night, the students pantomimed fistfights between the street
soldiers from Southeast and their enemies.
conflict draws on what the students have seen and heard on the street.
struck leading man Steven Brown, a last-minute stand-in as Xerxes,
in 2002 when his stepfather, Kennard Coleman, was fatally shot on
Eighth Street SE, said Steven's mother, Armenta Coleman.
enrolled Steven in the workshop for the past three years as an outlet
to express some of the difficulties of life in a sometimes dangerous
used to seeing so much," Coleman said. "It shows that
our black youth are smarter than people give them credit for."
Monae Smith said her 16-year-old neighbor from Wahler Place was
shot to death this month in District Heights while being robbed
of a bike. Monae said the students even heard gunfire one day in
writing class and dived to the floor.
to the play also were motivated by global events as she penned lines
expressing the devastation of the play's Southeast population in
terms of international disaster.
a hurricane, a tsunami and 9-11 all over again," she wrote,
describing the Persians' loss.
a professional actor, directed his second tragedy for the workshop
after being recruited by Schwalb last year. He said his young amateurs
"get it" and understand the emotional and human story
that "The Persians" tells. Sedar is amazed by their ability
to take on a difficult translation of a foreign text, across many
centuries -- a tough task for many adults.
not stuck by the language. They're moved by the emotion," Sedar
take the stage, and others are more comfortable working behind the
scenes. Everyone gets a chance to contribute. As a seventh-grader
last year, James Tindle balked about acting for one simple reason:
want people to think I was soft," he said.
But this year
he played a charismatic member of the chorus and earned cheers from
the 75 people in the audience for knowing most of his lines and
wailing the sorrow of the defeated Persians. Readapting the ancient
piece seemed simple for his classmates, said James, 13.
die every day. It's hoods beefing with hoods," James said.
"That's why everybody was so experienced in writing this."
Clarence Williams, Washington Post Staff Writer
Metro; B08, 992 words
back to newsroom