Our Gritty Town

Favio Zelaya and Angie Rodriguez star as George and Emily.
GENDY ALIMURUNG

For their school's first play ever, the drama club at Animo Pat Brown Charter High School in South Central Los Angeles chose Thornton Wilder's Our Town. How unoriginal, right?

Wrong. They recast milquetoast Emily Webb as a voluptuous Latina with bangs over one eye. Their narrator spoke in both English and Spanish. Their audience members, normally hushed into silence, were encouraged to trouble their neighbor for a translation. They set up Grover's Corners in the cavernous high school gym, where, according to student legend, the ghost of a dead sweatshop worker wanders around late at night. In its previous life, the building was a lingerie factory.

This isn't Our Town so much as Nuestro Pueblo.

At 5 years old, Animo Pat Brown is a young school. There was only enough money to rent a stage and lights. Perfect: Wilder insisted his play be performed with no scenery, no set and minimal props.

"Every high school in America does this play," says director and creative writing teacher Ellie Herman. "We wanted to be a part of that tradition."

Our Town typically clocks in at around 90 minutes. Nuestro Pueblo, however, is a three-hour, schoolwide, epic mash-up, complete with two intermissions, three documentary videos, singing, dancing and a bit with drums. Herman says the play, a year in the making, is "a multimedia, multidisciplinary exploration of a single text."

For instance, a character in Wilder's play imagines putting a time capsule in Grover's Corners. So, during intermission, the students make their own time capsule out of an empty paint can. They toss in a cell phone, earphones, a diaper ("because of teen pregnancy"), index cards describing the current fashions (leather jackets, leather boots) and the current events (Obama, oil spill, recession). Instead of burying it, they hoist the can into the rafters, up near the Internet cables.

Riffing on the play's last line, the honors chemistry class calculated how far starlight has to travel to get to Earth (the length of 102,300,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 footlong Subway sandwiches).

Then the school's undocumented students screened a documentary addressing the question, "Who belongs in our town?" Without official American citizenship, they don't qualify for college financial aid.

Still, would Wilder have anything to say about the lives of inner-city kids, most of whom have never even been to the theater? There are the two conflicting visions of America, Herman says: small-town Main Street USA, and the immigrant with suitcase in hand, gazing in wonder at the city. The disparity is vast.

A Salvadoran narrator at the beginning of Nuestro Pueblo asks the question on everyone's lips: Why should my son have to read about white people in 1901 New Hampshire? What does Emily Webb from Grover's Corners have to teach the teenage boy from an L.A. ghetto, who witnessed a woman gunned down in front of her children? It was a Saturday. He saw a bunch of gangbangers drive up. He quickly ducked behind some shrubbery to hide. One gangbanger walked up to the woman and shot her point-blank in the head while her children watched. She bled out on the sidewalk and died.

"My, isn't the moonlight terrible?" doesn't quite capture it. Or does it?

"I believe this play means that everyone who passes away lives on in one way or another," says 11th-grader Samoan Brown, Nuestro Pueblo's gregarious stage manager.

"This play means we have to live life to the fullest," says 10th-grader Angie Rodriguez. She plays Emily.

"It means giving hope to all people who don't understand that each of us have to die one day, and we don't know when," says 12th-grader Tarryn Willis, who plays Emily's mom. Willis dedicates the play to her BFF, Betty: "I love you so-o-o-o freaking much."

Other kids dedicate the production to their abuelas and abuelos, to fellow cast members, to favorite teachers, to moms and dads, and to "everyone who does not appreciate life."

One 12th-grader, Sandra Maldonado, dedicates it to her entire generation. "At one point in my life," Maldonado writes in the program notes, "I almost got to the point of suicide myself." She resonates especially with Emily's final speech. It's in Act 3, when the town's dead begin to speak with each other.

It wasn't hard selling the students on Wilder. Not when just last November one of their classmates, 18-year-old Julio Portillo, was shot and killed at a party.

"The play gets more and more universal as it goes on," Herman says. "The details of our lives have changed, but there is a common humanity. By the last act, there is no difference."


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