Urban Theater Project | Session 4

The Urban Theater Project is a partnership between the Virginia Stage Company and the Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Through games, improvisation, and other exercises, our teaching artists try to help each student discover life lessons that will help them rediscover a sense of imagination and play and to become part of the larger community. At the root of the program is the idea that theatre can bring encouragement, purpose, and an artistic outlet to teenagers in trouble.

The oldest saying in the proverbial book is “distance makes the heart grow fonder.”

I say that “distance from tumult draws clarity.” It is the reason it has taken a few days to write my blogs, and more specifically, this one. 

Monday night of my fourth session was the first time in a long time that I didn’t need to deactivate my Cruise Control on the way home from the Urban Theater Program. I figure, after being met with cinderblocks of angst and resistance in my class, the God of the roadways granted me lenience and allowed me a smooth journey home. Easy transit aside, my brow was firmly knit and my lips narrowed thin. My session had officially angered me silent. 

When I’d arrived at the Renaissance Academy at 6:35pm, I didn’t feel I had anything to worry about. Last week had gone better than I’d expected, and this week I was hoping to capitalize upon the progress made. But after entering the school, I’d discovered that I was going to have another problem with technology. Unlike last week, all of the sound equipment was working for the video I would show; however, the video, which was on YouTube, was blocked. Go figure, I thought. As I frantically tried to find other ways to find my video for the evening, I looked up and I realized I had a visitor. 

“Are you a new student to the program?” I asked the student, a highly irritated version of Huey from the Boondocks. 

“Yeah,” He gruffed quietly.

“He was supposed to be here weeks ago, but he never got on the van,” his mother explained. She was referring to the van that picks up the children and brings them to my program.

“Ah,” I tried to keep a level tone because I was seething inside from having yet another new variable in my program. “Well, ma’am, we’re actually in our fourth week of the project starting today. And next week, the students will start to plan their performances. I’m not sure it would be beneficial for your student to join us at this point.”

“Oh. Well…he was supposed to be here, but he wouldn’t get on the van when it came, and I was at work, so I was never home to make sure he was on it.”

I was glad to hear her explanation, and I hated that she drove her son all the way out to my program that evening, but there was no way I could integrate this young man into a program that is ultimately about trust. Three weeks wouldn’t be enough time to establish trust between myself or this young man and other students. I would have to turn him away.

“The head P.O. is on her way, so I suggest you speak with her, but I will reiterate that it’s a bit late for him to join.”

No sooner as I spoke about the P.O., she arrived…and so did the van we were speaking about. Discontented Huey and his mother went to speak with my P.O. partner, and I became quietly incensed as I watched two students who missed Session 3, two students who’d been present the entire time, and one brand new young lady with flip flops alight the van. Five students again. The only consistency was the number of students present each week. Teaching this class was like drawing from a deck of UNO cards.

I’d been told at one time that attendance is a variable that cannot be controlled in regards to my program. Students can call out due to sickness. They can be absent from home when transportation comes to pick them up. Their personal transportation may be unreliable. There are so many factors. These factors also make it beyond difficult to foster a sense of consistency among students. As a mere educator in this process, I have no way to enforce their attendance, nor am I aware of consequences or rewards from participating in my program versus others. Regardless, I’d felt as if I’d been sideswiped, and this was a challenge that I was losing patience with.

Discontented Huey and his mother were told that they could not participate, so I assumed a conversation about alternative programming was being discussed with them. I asked all of my students to follow me into the theatre, our classroom, and I prepared to hand them their notebooks for journaling.

I looked at my lesson plan then back at my students and then sighed. Here was yet another lesson plan I’d have to modify on the fly since I needed to appeal to those who’d been present as well as the ones who were sporadic attendants (of which I still question why such a thing is permitted). So far, there are only two students who have attended each and every session, and depending upon their personal moods and how they relate to others in the class, they are either committed to learning or completely against the act. I’d find out their moods shortly.

I began by asking my students “How are you doing, really?” and was met with brief answers. Even my students from before had minimal things to say. Dammit. I’ve lost them, I thought. My Young Woman wouldn’t look me in the eye, and she was less energetic than she’d been in weeks prior. Disgruntled, who was present for the first class, spoke more than a few sentences, and I remembered her telling me that if she was going to be here, she was going to participate because she “had no choice.” She was following through on that promise, even if it wasn’t genuine. Flip-Flops was very chatty, which was welcome. My venomous student, who almost started the altercation with Fitted Cap two sessions ago, had returned this week. With a smirk on his face, he gave a one-word response to my question.

Time to move on. Question to start the day: “What is a well told story?” I asked my students what elements they thought made a story worth listening to or watching. I was met with silence, which meant that I’d have to call on them individually to answer my questions. After mining some decent answers out of them, I reiterated that they would all be telling their own story in three more sessions. I reminded them that whatever they decided to create would come from them, but that they should ultimately be gearing up to present something (anything) to an audience of their P.O.s and family members in a few weeks.

Then we moved on to warm-ups. We did a quick physical warm up, as per usual, and then as we began to warm up our faces, there were under-the-breath comments. They sounded like exasperations to me…the kind of  “Oh My Gawwwwd, this sucks” exasperations I would expect. So, I ignored them and moved on to tongue twisters. “Wrist Watch” and “Proper Cup Of Coffee” were familiar to most of them. We revisited “Theophilus Thistleton.” This is a tongue twister I do individually with the students as the sounds are difficult to make. So, as I’m working with Disgruntled (who rocks the tongue twister challenge!), I hear more giggles, and both Venom and my Gentleman are having a laugh at my expense. I shrug it off and introduce a new tongue twister.

“Blue Glue Gun. Green Glue Gun,” I say, expecting everyone to repeat. Instead, I see Venom back up as if I’d said something disgusting. 

“Blue Glue Gun. RED Glue Gun,” He spits back at me. “Don’t you think red is a better color?”

“Oh goodness. He’s out here talking ‘bout Blood and Crips,” Young Woman says. She shakes her head. I roll my eyes and have the students recite the tongue twister again. Every time we say “Blue,” Venom yells “RED” so that we know he’ll never commit to saying the phrase correctly. His refusal alerts me to gang affiliation or an appreciation for red so deep that he now has a hated of the color of his jeans…which were blue!

“Alright,” I say. “Since one of us has a hard time saying his colors, let’s play a quick focus game of Zip, Zap, Shazam.” The students are informed that they will stand in a circle and pass energy to one another in the form or a clap. They will use the word “Zip” to do so. If they want to change the direction of the energy, they will say “Zap” to do so, and resume “Zipping” around the circle. They also have the option to “Shazam,” or pass the energy across the circle. They loosely get the hang of the game and we even get to rounds of elimination. While gathering the remaining students, who’d really gotten into “Zip, Zap, Shazam,” I hear:

“Teach, why you standing like that?”

I ignored him. For some strange reason, today, everything about me was bothering this student. Or else, as I’d been told by P.O.s before, he was “having a go” at me to break me down. As a person who worked in Customer Service long enough to know that I actually don’t have to put up with other people’s crappy behavior, I told myself that if this boy’s behavior continues in this fashion, he’ll need to leave the program. I’m not tough, and I don’t pretend to be. Someone with a firmer resolve should take my place, I kept thinking. 


Before I move forward with the program, I must address why being challenged by a student knocks me off my game. Who I am at times makes others uncomfortable: a highly educated, black man who is more or less comfortable with himself in many facets. A black man who believes that European tailors best suit his ever confused, sometimes pudgy body. A black man who blurs lines of what is traditionally “acceptable” by society. I can see how my assumed confidence could be off-putting for any young man trying to develop his own sense of belonging in this world. I can also see how stepping outside of my boundaries could make me a target.

I’ve been a target since middle school, where the bulk of my heckling occurred. Yet, I still wanted to give my best to those who’d never appreciate me. As a black man, I have had issues with trying to uplift and encourage others who look like me. Any perceived difference, however, equals immediate distrust or reason to ridicule. For the umpteenth time in my 30 plus years of life, my masculinity was being brought into question, serving as a reminder that I am not valued by a particular brand of male and that I am one with whom to dissociate.

The most tiring aspect of it all is having to justify my existence to the concept of masculinity, a monolithic concept that every other man on earth believes they are executing better and more solidly than me.

At fifteen-years-old, I made a mission statement for my life on the advice of a mentor. I refined it during my Master’s program, and I make sure to use it as a template for my life. To redefine the image of what it means to be a black man in this world through theater, art, and education. If there is nothing else I stand for on in this life, it is this. It is my purpose. Though I question whether or not my purpose gets fulfilled all the time, I make sure it is the foundation of everything I do.

What was more disheartening was that my purpose was not strong enough to keep their interest. Finding ways to put me down and disrespect me satisfied these children more than wanting to be present. They didn’t thirst for knowledge. They were testing me…and somewhere along the line, someone approved of this behavior. So they get away with it. Contrary to the constant reassurances of my boss and my P.O. partner, I do not believe these students think I have anything substantial to give them. They do not trust me. I do perceive this and I feel this with this group. These feelings aren’t a topic of debate. Full stop.

Back to Business

I urged the students to get ready for their next writing prompt. After a student-wide debacle last week where everyone claimed their pencils weren’t working, I purchased pens for them. They wouldn’t be able to use an excuse on me this week. They lackadaisically collected their pens from me and put pen to paper as I gave them their prompt: 

“You are more than the worst thing you have ever done.” What does this mean to you and why is it important?

Everyone began to write except Venom. He eyed me. A constant smirk on his face…shook his head and scribbled in his notebook. He punctuated his occasional scribbling with huffs and puffs.

Break time was due. I allowed the students ten minutes while I fiddled with the technology and searched for a remote for the smart projector in the room. I introduced a new activity. Here is a glimpse of the lesson plan:

 “Yes, No” Scenes: (7 min)
(Remind students to BE PRESENT) Two-person scene...One person will only be able to say “Yes.” The other can only say “No.” They must use different tactics to try and make the other person say their word. (requires listening, and observation) How does being present add to the experience? Does it make your motivations more sincere or genuine? What tactics did you see people employing? Did they work? What happens when we are honest and truly connecting with one another? Does it make it harder to say the words you were assigned?

The scene began…and no one activated themselves beyond what they knew. Flip Flops, once she understood the concept, went further than most of the other students, but then the student got bored. I was learning quickly that what I thought was a foolproof lesson plan was not working on these students. Instead, I was the fool for thinking it would work.

“Are you exhausting all of your tactics to make this game work? Be honest with yourselves.” Of course the students would chime in that they were trying their best. 

“I tried. You saw me up there, right? I tried!” Gentleman said. I was a noticing a trend that is present among many teens (not just these ones) of the bare minimum sufficing. Going above and beyond one’s current energy level is not something they value unless they are benefitting from it directly. Which is probably why Venom posed the question:

“What are we supposed to be getting from this? Like…saying ‘yes’…and ‘no’...and stuff? I don’t see how this deals with nothing.” 

I tried to explain to these students what tactics were. How they employ them in their everyday lives and how tactics could convince someone to change their minds or help them get things accomplished. I was about to explain why performers use tactics as a tool when Flip Flops chimed in to assist me.

“Think about it…like..if a dude is coming up to you and he pulls his d**k out, you gon’ be like, NO. You ain’t gonna say it soft,” She broke the tension a bit. Students were simultaneously appalled and in fits of laughter because of her commentary. At least she was trying…her method was skewed, but she was trying.

“We employ tactics every day. I wanted to see if you would utilize them here, but none of you think this activity has any point…"

“Well it’s not about whether you all think the program has any point or not,” the P.O. officer chimed in. It was her first intervention, and it came 30 minutes before the class ended. “It’s about what you use the tactic for.” 

The students began to speak with her about tactics. She’d succeeded in engaging them where I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.

“Ladies, how about when a boy is trying to talk to you in the street? How do you think this Yes/No exercise works then? Would you say No easily? Or Yes easily?” The P.O. was giving my lesson. I appreciated her help. The young ladies responded with how they’d use tactics to get away from street harassment. And Venom felt the need to promote his irrisistability. 

“Ain’t no girl gonna say no to me,” he claimed. This somehow lead to the P.O. and Venom volunteering to do the “Yes/No” activity, and it was entertaining. The P.O. kept saying No…and was ultimately successful, therefore knocking down Venom’s pride a step or two. But for all of this sudden activity, I’d checked out. I’m not proud of it, but I can admit that I did. There were fifteen minutes left in my class.

“We’re getting close to the end, everyone, and I don’t think I have time to show the video,” I was about to allow the students to talk amongst themselves. But the P.O. was clever.

“Um...do you all think this might be a great ‘Yes/ No’ tactic time? Try to convince Mr. Tommy to play the video!”

“I dunno,” Gentleman said. “His face is saying ‘No’ something serious.” It wasn’t a lie. But I was interested in what they’d say or do.

“Can you just show the video?” 

“Will you participate in a discussion after I show it? That’s my only requirement.” All I wanted was intellectual engagement from this group.

They unanimously agreed. I told them they’d have to stand around a laptop because I didn’t have access to the projector (due to the lack of remote control). 

Moans and groans. “Do I have to stand? Why can’t? I just sit here? Where’s a chair?”

Flip Flops refused to stand. Venom, in his least ego-centric moment of the night, went and grabbed her a chair to sit in.

I played my video. It was a lecture from Patsy Rodenburg called “Why I do Theatre,” and in it she talks about why being emotionally present is key. Normally, I’d couple this video with some history about Aristotle’s Elements of Storytelling. This would prepare them for next week when they begin brainstorming ideas for their performances. Once the video ended, and I began asking questions about the video, however, responses were lackluster and non-existent once again.

I was failing big time with these kids. I couldn’t get them to talk. They didn’t take me seriously. I’d allowed a student to get under my skin. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not meant to teach the seriously at-risk. This is not something I can continually do with all confidence. I’ll sound like I’m complaining if I don’t keep up this program. I am a fraud. Negativity had settled in my spirit. But I understood something very quickly...

My program requires young men and women to tap into their emotions. It requires young people to speak and have a voice. It requires that these young people believe in themselves. Their discomfort further reinforces that this work needs to be done and that there is an issue with all of the above. But perhaps I'm not the one equipped to hammer that message home to these particular students. They may never learn how to trust themselves or believe in their worth. I hope they do though. I won’t stop believing in their potential, yet sometimes damage can run deeper than one can heal. My superpower isn’t being able to heal another person. This program has taught me that.

The discussion lasted 5 minutes before my students hurriedly exited. On their way out, they pleaded their case with the P.O. for whether or not they deserved gift cards for their participation in the session. Some of them probably received them. You do the bare minimum and you still get a reward…a lovely lesson.

You do the most…you get burned out…

There are three more sessions to go. I guess I’ll remain on my toes seeing how they turn out. I’m nervous, but I don’t give up on what I start…

*By no means is what I'm describing in these posts indicative of every section of this program. It is highly unique to this particular Spring session. Previous sections of this have been successful beyond measure. Again…this is a unique case.*