Hunts Point children find Shakespeare’s magic

Photo by Monica Suma

The Hunts Point Children's Shakespeare Ensemble in rehearsal.

Fifth- and sixth-graders turn a stage into an enchanted forest

By Monica A. Suma

Five girls, 10- 11- and 12-years old move in a circle singing a strange song: “You spotted snakes, with double tongue, /Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen; /Newts and blind-worms do no wrong; /Come not near our fairy queen.”

A bit shy at first, they repeat the song, accompanied by a keyboard and a tambourine, until they’re comfortable and it’s perfect. The girls dance as gracefully as fairies, because they are fairies, circling their sleeping queen, casting a protective spell with their song.

It’s Friday afternoon at The Point’s Live from the Edge Theater, and the children are there for their weekly Shakespeare rehearsal.

The girls are members of The Hunts Point Children’s Shakespeare Ensemble, a year-round workshop for fifth- and sixth-graders who attend a school in Hunts Point. Led by the newly-formed formed Hunts Point Alliance for Children, the program is a partnership between Mud/Bone, the theater group based at 889 Hunts Point Avenue, and the Shakespeare Society, a citywide organization.

The students’ work will culminate in two performances of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” on May 31 and June 5 at the Live from the Edge Theater, 940 Garrison Avenue.

The young cast is drawn from three schools: Saint Ignatius, PS 48 and Bronx Charter School for the Arts. The students were hand-picked as the best from their respective schools, able to handle missing classes to prepare and rehearse instead.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy that tells the story of what happens when various people from the city wander into an enchanted forest and into the middle of a feud between the king and queen of the fairies. The characters speak in verse, and the language is that of the 16th century.

The production didn’t change Shakespeare’s words, even though they are not always easy for modern actors and audiences to understand. “We think if we set the expectations high, they will be able to meet them, instead of dumbing it down,” said Griselle Baret, the program director of Hunts Point Alliance for Children and the coordinator of the project.

“We wanted to do a program that would engage children academically,” she said.

Ten-year-old Hope Clarke, who plays the Fairy Queen, called the experience “really inspirational.

“When I was little,” she said, “I didn’t really understand what they were talking about, but this let me know more about it. It’s really amazing. It was hard at first, but it’s easy now, and I love what I’m doing.”

In addition to spending two hours every Friday rehearsing, Hope and her fellow cast members spent time during the week with a coach, to practice the language itself. They enjoyed insulting one another using the fighting words the two women throw at one another when they’re quarreling. The short one calls the tall one a “painted maypole,” and the tall one calls her rival “you bead, you acorn.”

“We sort of demystified Shakespeare, said Cheryl Deleaver, a social studies teacher at PS 48. “They’re not afraid of him anymore. They are laughing at him now. They truly embraced it.”

When she was first asked to be one of the teachers working in the project, she recalled thinking, “How do you get children to grasp this new language, compared to the izzle talk they use”—the “secret” language made popular by Snoop Dogg. But then she told them they could teach her the izzle talk she didn’t know and she could teach them this older version of English, and “a lot of them were excited.”

“Regardless of the performance, it’s already a success. They’ve turned into a company, and they leave here happy,” said Sarah Douglas, the co-director. “They are having a wonderful, joyful experience, connecting with each other, the text and Shakespeare,” she added.

Hope Clarke, 10, Jayden Gonzalez, 10, Thalia Torrez, 10, Jahlil Long, 9, and Angel Colone, 10, have been selected to attend Bank Street College’s summer camp, a Shakespeare-intensive program that will last for the entire month of July. A van from Hunts Point will drive them to and from the camp in Manhattan.

Baret believes putting on the play has achieved broader goals. “This project will encourage them in other tasks,” she said, “because they managed to do something very difficult, not expected of them.”

Next year plans call for the program to expand to bigger productions involving more students and more age groups.

The project is an effort to make up for what many see as a shortfall in the schools. Asked about Bronx schools during a meeting with The Express, Jesse Mojica, director of education and youth in Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr.’s office, said, “The arts are an essential part of education that unfortunately is still dealt as an extracurricular activity.”

And Baret, who calls education the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, believes the effort will have a positive impact on the neighborhood. “We have strong community organizations but there are problems–we can’t pretend there aren’t,” she said. “This project will make people proud of where they live.”

“At first I thought it would be a Midsummer night’s nightmare, but it’s absolutely a dream,” Deleaver concluded.

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