Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that most-performed of American plays, is, on the surface, a throwback to a time when America and Americans were both understood to be “white,” when the mainstream values espoused and celebrated were decidedly small-town and Christian. If those perceptions and elements were the sum of the play, it’d be nothing more than a fetishistic footnote, a nostalgia piece occasionally revived for camp value or ironic “deconstruction.” But Wilder was grappling with “something eternal” in all of us — that connection to spirit that is found in all the meaningful relationships in our lives. When imagined and executed three years ago by students and faculty at Compton’s Manuel Dominguez High School, the play was relocated to Compton and peopled with black and brown folk who mingled cultures and accents without even thinking about it. And while Wilder might be baffled by the slang, clothing and music used to modernize his celebrated work, he’d undoubtedly recognize the people and their universal concerns — love and connection, loss and grief.
Video and commercial director Scott Hamilton Kennedy stumbled upon the subject matter for his first documentary, OT: Our Town, in 1999, after he began dating high school English teacher Catherine Borek, who told him of her and a colleague’s plans to stage Our Town with their students in Compton — the first play produced at Manuel Dominguez in 20 years. With a head filled with preconceptions and stereotypes propagated by hood films and rap videos, Kennedy picked up a camera and trekked to Compton to document the process, from auditions to opening night. What he found was a Los Angeles that’s never been put on film.
While gangs, poverty and teen pregnancy are inarguable facts of life in Compton, Kennedy also found funny, charismatic and at times stunningly insightful kids whose lives involved families of all shapes and configurations. The struggle of one middle-class boy to garner his father’s attention is balanced by the story of Ebony Starr, a young Latina whose prostitute mom dropped her off at her black babysitter’s one day and never returned; Ebony was adopted at the age of 5 months by that black family and, by the time Our Town went into production at her high school, was big sister to a crew of nappy-headed little brothers. (The teenage Ebony’s matter-of-fact analysis of the cycles of poverty, unwed motherhood and hopelessness is a highlight of the film.)
Quinceañeras, Trent Reznor, proms and the banal dramas of parent-child conflict unfold before the camera as students and teachers wage battle to mount the play. Perhaps the brisk (76 minutes) film’s greatest strength, aside from its winning subjects, is Kennedy’s deft editing skills. Cutting between rehearsals and interviews with students and faculty, footage shot in the kids’ homes with their families, and the acclaimed 1977 television broadcast of the play starring Hal Holbrook and Robby Benson, Kennedy creates a smart, seamless commentary on race, class and the expectations (or lack of) that are often attached to them. He’s helped greatly by deep currents of heart and humor that pull you into the unfolding tale, and to the edge of your seat as the countdown to opening night begins. (This is the film that the wanly imagined Camp aspired to be.)
Early in rehearsals for the play, tension arises when some of the students resist the suggestion to modernize the text with current vernacular and urban-culture references because they’re afraid that doing so will simply confirm stereotypes. What they want to do is prove they’re capable of doing the unexpected. They needn’t have worried. Working with no funds and no support from the school (which doesn’t have an auditorium and in which these newly hatched dramaramas play second — or third, or fourth — fiddle to the school’s athletes), the OT posse trump stereotype and, on- and offstage, are utterly captivating. So is the film. The slow bonds that develop between cast-mates, the insecurities that flare before cooling down, and the lump-in-the-throat payoff do what all good movies do: take you where you haven’t been, and introduce you to people that you don’t know — even if you think you do.
OT: OUR TOWN | Directed and produced by SCOTT HAMILTON KENNEDY | Released by Film Movement | At Laemmle’s Fairplex and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7