On March 7, I attended the 2nd Annual Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival held at the Winter Garden Theatre and presented in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education. Very interesting event. I gained some valuable insights into the plays teachers choose to have their students perform and what the adjudicators of the competition deemed to be the strongest five productions out of the 20 that were viewed for the competition. The evening featured some truly great choices and some curious ones. The event provided lots of teachable moments for me in my classes that week, particularly in my acting class as we talked about type casting and culturally aware casting.
The highlight of the evening for me came when Brooklyn High School of the Arts took the stage with excerpts from their production of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry directed by Lisanne Shaffer. I teach this play at least once a year in a course at NYU, sometimes more, but I've only seen it once in performance. I think the story of the Younger family has the potential to resonate for people across a variety of communities because it deals very specifically with class differences while also revealing the struggles of an African American family in Chicago in the 1950s.
The scene excerpts performed by these young people illustrated a deep understanding of the stakes for the characters in the play, as well as the struggles caused for the family members by interval and external forces. It is rare in my experience to see young people effectively play age, meaning that when young people play much older than their experience warrants, I often find the performances to feel forced and to lack depth and clarity. Not the case here. These young actors understood the given circumstances and what was at stake for each of the characters in the play, and they calibrated their interactions with one another using very specific choices rather than trafficking in broad stereotypes. I was particularly impressed by the performance of the young woman playing Lena Younger, the matron of the family. Lena's plight is potentially the most difficult for a young actor to understand as the character tries to navigate the different wants and desires of her children while still staying true to her own goal of owning a home and honoring the memory of her late husband. This young actress, Sydney Plaza, is a gifted young performer, and I believed her at every single moment in her journey on stage. She was surrounded by an equally talented group of young people who committed fully to the anger and frustration and sadness required of their characters, and I was quite moved as I watched them invest so deeply in this story and triumph in the final moments of their presentation. I won't forget them or the work of their director, as it truly was a privilege to see this group perform.
For full on commitment to their artistry, for making me gasp more than once as I watched their work on stage, and for bringing Lorraine Hansberry's characters to life through their elegant performances and direction on that Broadway stage on March 7, Sydney Plaza, Marcus Edward, Kiana Gourdine, Imani Alleyne, Jajhanna Gillings, Michael Desmangles, Kiara Mazariegos, and Lisanne Shaffer are the artists that I admire for this week.