It was a Thursday afternoon just before 4 p.m. I was sitting with my students around an old wooden table in the library of New York City’s Jamaica High School. We were one day away from the scheduled performance of a play the students had written about school “reform” and specifically the planned phaseout of Jamaica High. From the excited talk amongst the students about costume choices and their nervousness about remembering their lines, it was clear they had no idea what was coming. But I was bracing myself to deliver some bad news. Earlier in the day I had received an email from a colleague informing me that the performance was being barred by the students’ principals, who “had issues with the script and are concerned about implications and negative references to the department of education as well as the chancellor and mayor.”
The play, Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together), is based on the classic play Antigone and was written as part of a college-credit elective I teach at Queensborough Community College, geared toward local area high school students. In addition to reading and discussing a translation of the classic Greek text, we also read The Island, a play by John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard about two political prisoners who stage Antigone to affirm their protest of apartheid South Africa. The exploration of both texts involved discussions of major themes like power, loyalty, and rebellion, as well as an exploration of individual lines that resonated with us.
We often worked in small groups to create short scenes, sometimes rooted in specific text and sometimes loosely riffing on a theme or idea. For example, one day I brought in index cards—each one printed with lines from Antigone that the students had chosen. “You can’t just pluck your honor off a bush you didn’t plant” and “Your conscience is what’s doing the disturbing” were two of the favorites I recall. In small groups, the students chose one of the cards, discussed the meaning of the line, and created a scene to share with the rest of the class. (Many of the lines explored in this way later found their way into our final play.) On another day I brought in images of rebellion—a theme we had been discussing—and placed them around the room. These images included the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics, as well as the 1936 Flint, Mich., sit-down strike and the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Students discussed the image they were most drawn to and why, and then set out to create a scene based on the image. After viewing each scene we discussed the story and the relationships in the scene, as well as how effectively it had been staged. We would then try to make links back to the story of Antigone. Through this process, with a strong example provided by our reading of The Island, students developed a sense of how the themes and power dynamics in the Greek text play out in other circumstances and how the story of Antigone can resonate politically and socially.
We then began to explore possible ways of adapting the story to speak to a contemporary issue. The situation at Jamaica High School was not our first choice. One group worked on an entire story line that dealt with SB 1070, the controversial Arizona anti-immigrant law, which students connected to the use of passbooks in apartheid South Africa. Another group attempted to create a story about the quality of free lunch in public schools, drawing on our brief discussion of the Attica prison uprising. But as Jamaica High School was slated to be phased out by the New York City Department of Education, and this had been a topic of discussion outside of class, it wasn’t long before some of the students saw the parallel. Admittedly, it had been on my mind and I was debating whether or not to push the idea. But before I even had a chance to, Neil said, “You know what we should do. . . .”
Neil and the other students in the class attend two different schools that are “co-located” in the same building, a practice that is causing increased tensions in New York City. The newer, smaller Queens Collegiate is, by most accounts, receiving adequate funding and technology, while the older Jamaica High School is being shut down, has seen its teaching staff cut by 30 percent, and struggles with large class sizes and a lack of resources.
There are many parallels with Antigone. In the Greek play, King Creon decrees that one of Antigone’s brothers shall receive proper burial rights, while the other is “left out for the birds to feed on.” Antigone’s subsequent challenge to the king stems from her sense of injustice over what is essentially a unilateral decision about public policy. So it seemed to be a good fit for our project. It was relevant to students’ lives, and many of the characters in Antigone easily found their modern equivalent: Antigone and her sister Ismene as students at the two schools, Creon as the school chancellor, the prophet Tiresias as a veteran teacher, and the palace guards taking their modern place as custodial staff at the school. To further ground our story in current-day New York, we cast an overworked mother who has her own “struggle for existence” trying to hold her family together and provide for her two daughters.
The one concern I had as we began the adaptation process was the class composition of students from two schools cast on opposite sides of a heated debate over education “reform.” Wanting to head off any unnecessary rivalry—I had overheard a few passing remarks—I asked the students to pair up with someone from the other school for a simple listening exchange: “Choose one person to talk while the other listens. Describe your experience at school, what your classes are like, what resources you have, etc. Do this for two minutes, then switch.” Then we came back together to share with the larger group. As an alternative to the contentious debate we’ve grown accustomed to as educators, the students showed a sense of unity and willingness to talk about the dynamics they know full well exist between their two schools. These conversations manifest in the play in the relationship between the two sisters, Ismene and Antigone, who argue but ultimately remain close and, unlike in the original story, eventually choose to take action together.
‘Word Has Come Down from Creon’
For many of the students, the play was as much about the experience of putting on a show and working together as it was about making a statement on the school closing. So why the sudden strong reaction from the principals? Looking back, I suspect it was the posters the students had hung up around the schools that provided the catalyst. Throughout the process of creating and producing the play we never talked about a title. But with a week left before the performance, Stephanie came in with a draft of a poster she made to advertise the play and said, “Hello, we need a title!” And so we brainstormed some possibilities, put them up on the board, and began discussing the options. “Struggle for existence” emerged as the most dramatic choice, while “We used to eat lunch together” was getting votes since it was based on a true story that Marisa had told in class. Then Utricia added something to the mix that wasn’t on the board: “What does ‘declassified’ mean?” she asked. Someone took out their cell phone and looked it up. Moments later we had our soon to be provocative title: Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together). We didn’t think twice about. However, it was only after our posters with the new title were up around the building that the principal from Queens Collegiate asked one of the cast members for a copy of the script. A day later we were banned in Jamaica.
As I approached my task as reluctant messenger that night in the school library, I was struck by how similar the real-life power dynamics were to those in Antigone, and I was suddenly excited about the potential for life lessons far beyond any I could have planned for. The principals were playing out the role of King Creon while the students were cast collectively as Antigone.
Because of the striking parallels to the Greek text, I broke the news by quoting from the play: “Word has come down from Creon . . .” The students immediately knew this meant something was wrong, though they assumed it was a conflict with a recently announced pep rally that had been threatening all week to steal our audience. When they started to complain about the pep rally, I interrupted. “I’m afraid it’s not that,” I said, and proceeded to tell them about the email I received. The principals seemed unwavering in their position that under no circumstances could the play be performed. The initial responses varied, from cries of “Let’s go to the press” to the more defeated “Well, at least we tried.” As I recounted my brief meeting with the Jamaica High principal, Lyla commented, “What’s happened here is that the judge has misjudged everything,” quoting the original text of Antigone. Other quotations from the play followed:
There’s a general order issued and again it hits us hardest.
If things have gone this far what is there we can do?
What Would Antigone Do?
In part, what saved the students from feeling utterly powerless was the text of Antigone itself. Reading the play as we had, as a story of resistance to an unjust decree, and now facing an unjust decree of our own, the question “What would Antigone do?” was very much in the room with us. As quotes from the play continued throughout the conversation, it became wonderfully clear that not only did our situation have notable similarities to the play we had read in class, but also that the process of reading and adapting the play had actually given the students some of the tools they needed to know how to advocate for themselves.
Not taking the decision sitting down, but unsure about what it meant to go to the press, the students decided to first demand accountability from their respective principals. After reaching a consensus—a process that included students deciding not to edit the script were that to be a compromise offered by the administration—they left the table we were huddled around and marched down the hallway to request a joint meeting of everyone involved in the affair. The injustice the students felt stemmed predominantly from the fact that no one bothered to talk to them about it. Some even seemed willing to concede the performance itself as long as they could get a reasonable explanation.
Spirits were high, even as they returned from the principals’ offices with less than reassuring reports. They were taking action and doing so collectively. The feeling of empowerment was palpable. I confess my own excitement was somewhat tempered by concerns about what would happen to that sense of empowerment if the administration refused to engage with them, something I felt was likely. But those concerns were quickly allayed. As we were leaving the library that night, uncertain of what our fate would be, Afsan said something I will always remember: “I feel like it’s the Renaissance and we’re resisting the edicts of the church.”
The Story Hits the Press
Over the next few days there was silence from the two principals. The students felt certain it was deliberate, and that they were stalling in hopes that much of this would be forgotten over the winter break, which was fast approaching.
I took the opportunity in our final class sessions to share another story of high school theater censorship, that of students at Wilton High in Connecticut whose 2007 play Voices in Conflict, about soldiers in Iraq, was shut down by the administration who claimed it was “sensational and inappropriate” for students to be playing the roles of soldiers deployed to Iraq. In that case the students received a lot of positive media attention, support from the theater community and free speech advocates, and eventually performed the play at various off-Broadway venues in Manhattan. We also discussed a U.S. Supreme Court precedent—Tinker v. Des Moines—supporting student speech and First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, I was informed that Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post had caught wind of our predicament and was interested in publishing the students’ play in the Answer Sheet, her widely read education blog. I put it to the students for a vote and two days later, on Christmas Eve, the story hit the press and began to travel.
Following Strauss’ post, which included the political context of mayoral control of NYC schools, I wrote one of my own for the Huffington Post, briefly explaining the process of creating the play. The response to these first two posts was overwhelmingly supportive, and offers of assistance began to pour in. Someone from the UFT offered us performance space, as did members of the New York theater community. The editor of a small publication called the Teacher’s Voice offered to print 500 chapbooks of the play as a Christmas gift to the students. And one retired librarian commented online: “Wow. Powerful stuff. Thank you, students, for showing the way. I hope you find a venue for your play. In fact, I hope it is produced by students across the country. You’ve made this old librarian very proud.”
This kind of support and media interest continued, and a week later, on New Year’s Eve, the story hit the New York Daily News in a surprisingly thorough and favorable article, complete with an image of Chancellor Joel Klein in a toga, and strong quotes from two of the students. The article cited support from the Student Press Law Center, which had, unbeknownst to us, sent an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein outlining both constitutional and pedagogical arguments for allowing the play to go on: “It is difficult to think of a more educationally and civically unsound action that a principal could take than to order students to refrain from speaking out on a matter of public concern regarding the quality of education they are receiving.” The following day, having initially declined comment to the press, the NYC Department of Education issued a public statement in support of the students’ right to free speech. The principals were now in the awkward position of having to support the play they had once banned.
After some back and forth, the performance was rescheduled for Jan. 14 in the Jamaica High School auditorium. The play, really a modest endeavor from the start, had at this point acquired something of a mythic quality amongst local education activists. The cast was received by an audience of more than 250 people with what one reporter called “pep-rally-style applause.” In attendance were students, teachers, education activists, members of the press, and even some local politicians who came to express their support. The night represented a clear victory for the students and a successful challenge to how decisions are too often made without young people having a meaningful say. Before the show got under way, the two principals stiffly welcomed the audience. As we got ready backstage, Bibi recalled that night in the library: “Remember how fired up we were? But did any of us think we’d really win!?”
A month later, on Feb. 22, the victory continued as the students performed an encore of the play, this time on the off-Broadway stage of the Abingdon Theatre, which was generously offered by a colleague at the community college. Since a Bloomberg-appointed panel had voted to phase out Jamaica High on Feb. 3 (along with nearly two dozen other schools) the play no longer stood poised to help “save Jamaica,” so in rehearsing for the second show we talked about changing the play’s ending to address that fact. But La Tanya was quick to say, “Why should we change our story because of someone else?” I added that the play captures a time when people were fired up to save the school, and that there is great value in that. And so we performed with the text unchanged.
If the first show was largely a celebration of the students’ victory in overturning the ban, this second performance, in a more intimate space, provided a chance for the audience and cast to reflect on the content of the play. In the conversation following the show, we covered a lot of ground, from the overall question of school closures to the role of art in effecting change and the importance of young people standing up for their rights. Speaking about school closure, Marisa responded to one audience member that she thought it should only be a “last resort” and that those making the decisions should at least give the schools in question a fighting chance. Lyla raised questions about where students from the “failing” schools end up, something that is not always entirely clear. Although we didn’t reach any conclusions about how to best save our schools in the 30 minutes we had for discussion, the entire evening was imbued with the spirit of community and the importance of students getting involved and making their voices heard.
As the discussion was wrapping up, one audience member, a fellow student from Jamaica High School, asked: “But do you really think we can make change? I mean nothing changes unless the mayor wants it to.” Getting in the final remark of the evening, Nneoma, who plays the rebellious Antigone in the play, replied: “That’s what you think.”
Brian Pickett’s drama students at Jamaica and Queens Collegiate High Schools. Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together). Download text here. Video at http://vimeo.com/22455995.
Kani, John, Ntshona, Winston, and Fugard, Athol. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island. New York: Viking Adult, 1978.