Chris Roberts by tyndale


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                                                                                       Chris Roberts


                                                              ENGLISH 319 – Dr. Buzz Alexander

                                      Breaking Down Barriers

       Many of my fellow students in “Theater and Social Change” this semester have claimed

that this class has changed their life. Although this class has not instantly transformed me, I can

definitely understand the extent to which it might change one’s life. My experience at Henry

Ford High School this semester has been nothing short of amazing, and I have been so grateful

for this opportunity. I have learned a great deal about how community-based theater can be a

powerful tool for communication and expression. I have also learned many things about the

cultural boundaries that separate my world from that of the students I have worked with. Most

importantly, I have gained experience in breaking down those boundaries to connect with the

students I have worked with, and this has helped me to understand the world that they are

coming from while simultaneously developing strong relationships with them.

       We faced many different challenges in our work with two groups of students at Henry

Ford High School. One of the first obstacles to overcome was to establish ourselves in positive

facilitator roles during our workshops. Both Julie and I and the students required a couple of

weeks to adjust ourselves to these roles. A majority of the teachers we saw at Henry Ford were

black, like the students, so I had to adjust to being the minority. This in itself was a very

interesting experience, which I will comment on later. Furthermore, the teachers in these

students’ lives seemed quite different than the teachers that I knew in high school. This stems

partly from differences in our cultural backgrounds, which I will also comment on later. Besides
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the fact that I was a workshop facilitator and not a teacher, the biggest difference between me

and the rest of the teachers at Henry Ford was my age.

       Only two years removed from high school, I was still very close in age to these students.

Indeed, I still have close friends who are seniors at Okemos High School, and my younger

brother is a junior there. Even Julie was at least twenty-one, and she had turned twenty-two a

couple weeks after I had turned twenty near the end of the semester. This situation seemed to

indicate that I would make a better friend to these kids, rather than assume a position of some

authority. Yet I knew that I could somehow blend the characteristics of a friend and a facilitator,

and that this might be this best way for me to relate to these students. My goal was not to be an

authoritative facilitator and not to be foremost their friend, but to be a friendly facilitator. By

achieving these qualities, I felt as though I was able to set myself apart from the other figures of

authority that these students interacted with daily at Henry Ford. I was not one of the nasty

security officers roaming the halls, screaming at the kids in close proximity through a bullhorn,

nor was I one of the teachers who were instructed to demand certain levels of work and attention

from the students (although most times these students seemed to have little regard for their

teachers’ wishes). Instead, I was the friendly guy with long hair who came in to do theater with

them every Thursday morning. My purpose was to help them create a play about the afflicting

issues that were on their mind, gently pushing them along at an even pace to ensure that we

would have a play to perform at the end of the semester. I worked to establish myself in this

role, and the students came to understand that this was my position, and we were able to forge

great relationships as we began working on our plays.

       One of the things that made it easy to own this position was a sort of “reserved authority”

that I was able to employ. Most of the time, our workshops were most productive if we acted to
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get the students going but then backed off to see where the scenes might take us. Part of this

philosophy came from a desire to see the students take ownership of their scenes; to fully involve

themselves until they had created something meaningful and original that they could be proud of.

I think that another part of this philosophy came from the inverse of that desire: our reluctance to

exert too much control and power over the workshop. Especially in a troubled inner-city school

district such as Henry Ford’s, it was more important for us to provide these students with an

opportunity than for us to approach the situation with our own agendas and goals. While it was

important for us to encourage them and push them towards the completion of a play, it was

certainly not our position to come down on them and tell them that anything they were done was

“wrong” or that they weren’t meeting our expectations. Although it was frustrating when

progress was slow, the result was much more positive in the absence of negative reinforcement.

       From the inception of our workshops, one of the biggest differences between us and the

students came from our backgrounds. The structure of the program makes such differences

unavoidable: we were University of Michigan students coming in to their impoverished high

school to create plays about tough inner-city issues. Furthermore, although we had been

prepared to create plays about urban problems, I am quite certain that they were not under the

impression that this was our intention at the beginning of our workshops. Yet they were not

negligent of these problems, because the scenes that we created in our workshops drew upon the

same topics we had discussed in class. However, in our first workshop, Julie and I stood there as

two white young adults, wealthy enough to attend the University of Michigan, about to begin

work with a demographic that was certainly not our expertise.

       Race was another issue that immediately set us apart from the students we were working

with. Walking down the hallways at Henry Ford and seeing one, maybe two students who had
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the same skin color as you was certainly an eye-opening experience. Moreover, I noticed that

the very few white kids at Henry Ford hardly looked the same as I or any of my 3 colleagues

from our class. These students wore baggy pants, basketball jerseys and large silver chains,

imitating the coolest of the black students and the black entertainers they saw in movies and on

MTV. Not only did I feel like a minority; I felt different. The ways that my peers idolized

rappers and black movie stars in high school was much different from the way these kids looked

up to them. I felt almost as if I was at the source of the styles and the trends: that certain aspects

of this culture were marketed to and consumed by my suburban high school, but produced and

engineered at city high schools such as Henry Ford. Yet, in my high school this was one of

many styles that students adopted. At Henry Ford, I was not just a different race and style: I was


        With a racial dynamic so radically different from that of the high school I came from, I

was interested to see other ways that race affected interpersonal relations. Unfortunately, Julie

and I would be the only two white people ever to grace our workshops. Yet the topic of race still

worked its way into our workshops, sometimes unexpectedly. I will never forget my auditory

double take in second hour’s first workshop when two of the girls begin to joke about “light-

skinned Tiffany McCrary”. During the ride home that first day, Julie and I both commented on

how poignant this comment seemed. A couple weeks later, a girl in our first hour also joked

about “light-skinned Tiffany McCrary”. At this point, I had assumed that this was a white

student at Henry Ford, and that perhaps the other students made fun of her for her race, perhaps

for another aspect of her personality. As Julie and I brought it up again during the car ride home,

I was astonished to learn that Tiffany McCrary was a student in one of Brian and Molly’s

workshops, and that she was actually not white but black. Her skin tone was literally “lighter”
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than the majority of the black students at Henry Ford. Sharing this experience with my girlfriend

a couple weeks later, she validated this, saying that she noticed that black people certainly do

refer to each other in this manner, and that it contributes to their personality in the same way that

race might contribute to it.

       This notion of a racial spectrum rather than distinct, quantitative racial options is

something that I have always noticed, but is something that I feel is dissuaded by many facets of

American culture. An avid sports fan since I was a young child, I have internalized the wide

array of skin tones that humans can possess from watching professional athletes who are white,

black, Hispanic, Far Eastern, and many combinations of all races in between. I learned at an

early age that knowing someone is black or white does not mean you could automatically select

their skin tone from a large box of crayons. Yet hearing these students refer to actual skin colors

instead of races named after colors was a new experience for me. It was even more interesting as

I tried to comprehend how these students connected these skin tones to different character traits

in their minds. Gauging from their talk of “light-skinned Tiffany McCrary”, this girl seemed to

be a social hazard with lax sexual reservations. My assessment took a turn when Ashley, one of

the girls in our first hour workshop, began referring to a fictional character we had invented as

“that dark-skinned girl”.

       In their play, De’Andre had given Janae (played by Porsche) HIV through sexual

intercourse. De’Andre’s scenes explained that he had received the virus from Tasha, a one-night

stand his character met at Homecoming. De’Andre had referred to Tasha (who never appeared

in our play) as “that freak-ho” from the outset of our workshops. A few weeks after we had

created this scene, Ashley began referring to Tasha as “you know, that dark-skinned girl”.

Suddenly I wondered if she had invented this trait for a reason, or if her character’s role in the
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play had somehow led to this trait. I am still a bit unsure how this detail originated, although the

range of skin tones that existed in both of our workshops opposed my speculations from the start.

These students did not seem to directly refer to each other in this manner; this type of

identification was only reserved for when the subject was not in the room at the time. Regardless

of when it was brought up, it was clear that both race and racial appearance were weighing

heavily on the minds of these students, especially during our workshops and most likely during

the course of their daily life as well.

        My curiosity of their approach to race peaked again in talking with some of the students

as our workshops ended. On our last day at Henry Ford, as we sat around eating cake and

reflecting on our experiences, I had an interesting conversation with Sherrie from our first hour

group. When I asked her what she would be doing over the summer, Sherrie said that she would

be working but that she also hoped to spend some time in Europe. I proceeded to ask her if she

would be traveling by herself or with her family, and she said that she would be going with her

family, because they had family over there. This almost confused me for a moment, because I

had thought that Sherrie came to the U.S. from Jamaica a few years ago. I asked and she

confirmed this, and then a moment later she leaned in towards me and in a low, hushed tone, she

said “I’m not really…you know…”, implying that she was not black, or at least not the same

black as these urban American blacks. An alarm went off inside me, just as it did the first time I

heard one of the girls talk about “light-skinned Tiffany McCrary”. My biggest regret of the

entire workshop is that I was unable to shift our conversation to whether or not her cross-racial

identity had raised any issues for her at Henry Ford. Although her accent did not seem as

prominent when talking to her in person offstage, I would agree with the opinion that many of

the kids laughed when she spoke emotionally in her accent during the course of the play.
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       This brings me to how unfortunate it was that they laughed during these crucial moments

of first hour’s play. Many times during our play “Who Can You Trust?” the actresses and/or

actor would reach a very high emotional point and the other Henry Ford students in the audience

would bust out in laughter. This happened when Porsche’s character Janae first revealed that she

has AIDS, when Sherrie cried out that “she didn’t say anything” and that “you [the other

students] did this to her (Janae)”, and even when Janae actually commits suicide. Second hour’s

play was not immune to this either. Most of the students found that the funniest parts of their

play were when the students beat up the man at the mall (Rashon or me, depending on the

performance), when Lamu (Lamar) called out Auntie Pookie (Phyllicia) as a crackhead, and

when Jimmy (Patrick a.k.a. Rocky) argues that other, real-life “urban idols” have the same

problems that their characters do. Although this was obviously a bit disheartening, because it

felt as though the point of our play did not fully come across to the audience, I also understood it

that their laughter also stemmed from a nervous laughter, acknowledging that these problems

really do exist, especially in their community. In the end, I feel as though the obvious relevance

of our plays outweighed the disruptions caused by laughter and inappropriateness.

       There were a number of different signs throughout the course of our workshops that

affirmed the notion that we were dealing with actual urban kids who faced these actual urban

problems. Lamar’s character, the talented rapper who loses the “Urban Idol” contest because of

his attitude problem, definitely parallels certain aspects of his life. From our first workshop,

Lamar struck me as a very likeable young man who is very talented and charismatic, yet uses his

imposing size to his advantage in interpersonal relationships. His characters always wanted to

pick fights in our earliest workshops, and his final character was no exception. Then, we

discovered that as soon as they got off the bus after their performance at U of M on Monday,
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there was a gang waiting to fight Lamar back at Henry Ford. Apparently, Lamar had beaten

someone up in a club the previous Saturday night. Sure enough, they fought that Monday

afternoon, and their play had to go first on Tuesday so that Lamar and a couple other guys in the

play could talk to the police.

       First hour’s play continually drew on real-life scenarios as well. As we constructed the

scenes surrounding the school counselor and the students as they dealt with the news that Janae

had AIDS, the girls insisted on redoing the scenes because they said, “this is what would actually

happen” or, “this is what that person would really do”. This was certainly a promising sign that

we were on the right track with what we were doing. At our U of M performance, I noticed Ms.

Galica’s eyes water when they performed the scene in which the school counselor comes in to

the English class to tell the students that Janae has committed suicide. I had to empathize with

Ms. Galica; during my senior year of high school one of our classmates committed suicide just

months before graduating. Indeed, this ending was something that we would only perform if we

could do it appropriately and collectively.

       One interesting circumstance we had to deal with was our own actors’ and actresses’

collection of biases to overcome as we worked on scenes for our plays. In second hour’s early

workshops, Steve often played gay roles, sometimes under the pressure of his fellow classmates.

Although they all thought that his role in these scenes was hilarious, it was definitely the over-

the-top gay humor that appears on TV shows such as “Will & Grace”. Furthermore, Steve often

expressed disdain for these roles, saying “man, why do I always have to be the gay guy?” It

appeared as though we needed to address the issue of homophobia, because when we stressed

that Steve had to be realistic and not over-the-top if he were to be gay, they no longer cared for

this aspect of the scene. Especially since they always targeted Steve as “the gay guy” in this
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homophobic environment, we wound up collectively dismissing this uncomfortable area from

our play. I hope that by curbing these inappropriate and intolerant jokes, we were at least able to

address the issue of homophobia.

       First hour was also plagued all semester with only having two males: De’Andre and

myself. Playing Janae’s ex-boyfriend who contracted HIV in the process of cheating on her,

De’Andre was already set up to be cast unfavorably onstage. After a few workshops, it became

clear to us that De’Andre also had some social issues that set him even farther apart from the rest

of the class. Firstly, De’Andre had a few different scripts and transcripts that he wanted Julie

and I to read through, partly to see if we could perform them in our workshop (of course we read

the transcripts but declined to perform them). De’Andre was corresponding with Julie through

email nearly every week, and began to express worries that the rest of the class did not enjoy

working with him. Sure enough, we soon began to notice that the girls would be very curt and

harsh with De’Andre and even complained to Julie and I about the way that he was playing his

role. I found it much more challenging than I had expected to protect De’Andre from the insults

and negativity from the girls while still curbing his own negativity and boosting his self-

confidence, which might have taken major blows from the girls’ comments. Over the course of

the semester, De’Andre became very self-conscious about performing his role, and certainly

found it difficult to socially acclimate himself to the rest of the workshop. I surmised that

De’Andre was one of the least popular seniors at Henry Ford, and unfortunately, I do not think

that he established any new friendships in our workshop (besides Julie and I). Yet he stuck with

the workshop and gave us two great performances, which made me happy because I could tell

how excited he was at the opportunity to do this play.
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       De’Andre and the girls both had to work to break down the typical teenage social barriers

that had kept them separate until our workshop, just as Julie and I had to work with the students

to break down the barriers that separated two white university students from workshops of black,

urban high school seniors. At the onset of these workshops, it appeared that we would have to

overcome a number of different obstacles, including differences in our cultures, our races, our

backgrounds, our age, and our roles at Henry Ford. Yet looking back on our experience, I feel as

though these qualities were not obstacles but rather points of interest that drew us to each other

even more. In a very sentimental recollection, I will always remember the students busting out

in laughter as I tried to rap during our performance at U of M, or their questions about what

college was like. Our differences seemed painfully obvious, but in the end we all laughed at the

same punch lines, we all bobbed our heads to the same song, and we worked hard to put on a

play that I think we were all quite proud of. Personally, I was extremely proud, not because I

had helped to create these plays but because I had been a part of them. When this all began at

the start of the semester, I could only have dreamed for such an amazing result.

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