August 18, 2006
Column By BESSY REYNA, Courant Staff Writer
Too often the news tells of a teenager who was shot in the gang violence gripping certain areas of Hartford.
I wonder, at what point do teenagers become so disenchanted with life that they are willing to throw away not only their lives but to take the lives of innocent bystanders too? Do we as a community have a responsibility to provide incentives to teens so they can develop themselves, learn a craft or, more important, learn to value who they are?
Despite the many opportunities offered by groups such as the Artists' Collective, Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Girl Scouts and the Neighborhood Studios of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, there are still not enough positive choices available to adolescents. Unfortunately, many parents and guardians do not know about the existing programs, how to obtain information about them or even recognize the value of these activities for their children.
I have been fortunate to learn firsthand the role that the arts can play in enriching a student's life. As a participant in programs bringing writers and other artists to Hartford schools, I have worked with students from second grade to high school. I have also been a mentor for young, award-winning poets at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. If more arts programs were implemented and used as educational tools, could we effectively show teens the consequences of violence and offer them an alternative before it is too late?
This summer, Eddie Duran, education director for the Hartford Stage Company, decided to do just that. He collaborated with the Neighborhood Studios - with theater director Missy Waryas and choreographer Jason Post - to choose 13 students from among 80 applicants to take part in a six-week program. The students were paid a stipend to learn responsibility and social skills through studying the elements of drama and dance. They explored the effects of prejudice and narrow-mindedness by creating a new version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." This time, the Capulets and Montagues used break dancing instead of sword fighting and the two groups (wearing red or black) were gang members instead of rival families.
The students who participated in this project came from several school districts. Their ages ranged from 13 to 17. They were from different ethnicities and economic backgrounds.
The play, presented one night only to an overflow crowd at Hartford Stage, is not an answer to gang violence. In developing the piece, however, the students were exposed to the havoc created when hatred and intolerance prevail over reason and kindness. The students learned to help and trust one another; to be part of an experience in which they could better themselves; and make their families and friends proud. The standing ovation they received was well deserved.
While working on this project, these students had a refuge to go to - away from the bullets, hate-crimes and bullying affecting their lives.
Those of us who were fortunate to get in to see the play were treated to a moment in which Asians, Latinos, African Americans, whites, gays, straights, young and old came together. The students participating in this production learned not only about how they could develop their talents but also how to cooperate with one another .
For one night Hartford Stage gave us something we can all be proud of, gave the students something they will always cherish and, most important, we could all see in their portrayal of the red and black gangs, what happens when violence is the only language we can use to communicate with one another.
Given sufficient funding, break dance Shakespeare could be used as an educational tool. It could start a dialogue between groups so teens can discuss not only the outcome and repercussions of violence, but the extraordinary suffering inflicted on friends, families and the community when we lose one of our own.
If each child in Hartford could experience the intellectual, emotional and physical enrichment of programs like this during their formative years, perhaps they would find less appeal in the thoughtless violence and destructive camaraderie of gangs. Sadly, there was not enough space in this summer's programs to accommodate the demand.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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