This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For many students at Beeber Middle School, musical theater-going is not on their top list of things to do. But on May 28, over 60 students had the opportunity to attend the Prince Music Theater’s production of one-act musicals written by their peers and performed by semi-professional teen singers, dancers, and actors.
The 2008-2009 Beeber Middle School’s original one-act musical “Learning the Ropes” depicts the problems of culturally diverse families trying to come together. Beeber has participated in the writing program with the Prince Music Theater’s education department for the last three years. In the previous years, we wrote our musical with the support of a visiting playwright and lyricist. Because last year we were in finale stage in the program, we wrote our musical this time without the support of visiting artists.
To say the least, this was a challenge. My students and I had to maintain the momentum while planning, drafting, revising, and editing our musical while still meeting the demands of our core curriculum. Fortunately, in our social studies class we had engaged in an inquiry project that explored the connections between Latin American and African American cultures.
Through a curriculum unit I developed, while participating in a 2007 “Latinos and Communities” seminar at the Yale National Initiative, I was able to draw upon social studies, performing arts and literature content to guide my students to craft our musical.
My students wanted to explore what it would be like for a Mexican immigrant father and daughter to adjust to life in Philadelphia while learning to blend in with an African American mother and son. The father and mother fall in love, while the children struggle to value differences in their cultural traditions.
This project was truly a collaborative experience, with the whole class providing input on the plot and characters to the executive writing group, revising the scripts, and writing original lyrics.
Last year after we completed the final draft of the script of over 30 pages, 7th graders Victoria and Maliyah, two of the major executive writers, were amazed that we had written so much. Victoria, the taskmaster of the executive writers team took full ownership of the script. “Mr. Reed, you know you wouldn’t have completed this musical without us.”
This year, after seeing the musical performed on main stage at the Prince, Precious, another 7th grader, who wrote lyrics for "Learning the Rope", was ecstatic, even though some of her lyrics were revised or not included in the final production: “Hey, Mr. Reed, did you know they didn’t include all my lyrics I wrote?”
The other one-act musicals written by middle school students and performed during the festival included ones from Masterman and Shaw Middle School. During the matinee that Beeber attended, we had the pleasure to view Shaw’s “It Comes with a Cost.”
Shaw’s musical was riveting; it addressed the consequences associated with hanging with the wrong crowd and making bad choices. Simon Nicolas, the teacher who worked with the students at Shaw on their musical, was very proud of their efforts. He noted that some of the students on Shaw’s executive writing team used the playwriting process to express some of the realities of their lives. Watching Shaw’s musical reminded me of why I liked the HBO series The Wire. "It Comes With a Cost” depicted spousal abuse, suicide, street violence, and drug use, but the characters were very complex just like the characters on The Wire.
During our matinee feature we did not get to view Masterman’s “Ruler of the School”. This musical centers on current events. It addresses how a family tries to adapt to a new way of life as a result of the unstable stock market.
All of the one-act musicals were judged at the conclusion of the festival. The judges were truly impressed with each of the original one-act musicals presented. One of the judges, Timothy Whiteside, President & CEO of Sing Entertainment, was so impressed that he offered to fund an evening production of the festival of plays so that more people can experience them. The other judges included Nakia Dillard, President & CEO of Aikan Entertainment, actor of movies and television, Rainbow Company alum; and Ray Duval, House Manager, Prince Music Theater’s musical theater historian, a former musical theater critic.
Masterrman’s “Ruler of the School” received the best story (script) award; Shaw’s “It Comes with a Cost” came away with the best lyrics, while Beeber’s “Learning the Ropes” was recognized for best concept.
Even though Beeber received the award for the best concept, students are still critiquing our musical. Sierra, a 7th grader and critic on Beeber’s executive writers team said, “Mr. Reed, I didn’t like the way our musical ended; we need to work on a sequel.”
I am not sure if we will work on a sequel. But I am definitely sure all the students are winners for participating in a project that allowed them to explore their world through the performing arts.