Romeo y Julieta en Bushwick

My name is Rafael Morales, and I’m a seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican male from Bushwick, Brooklyn. This is my story on how my life has been changed by one little play, Romeo y Julieta. Yeah, you could laugh, but it’s true.

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My name is Stephen Haff. I’m a thirty-five-year-old Canadian teaching English at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn. This is my story of how working with kids on Romeo y Julieta has changed my life for the better.

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Romeo y Julieta is a Shakespeare/Spanish/Street—or “Ghetto”—version of Romeo and Juliet. I’m Romeo. We, the student actors, did the translating. This was a long, hard, fun process. We sat down with Mr. Haff, the director, and he asked us, “Do you like your lines in the Shakespeare version?” We either said yes or no. If yes, it stayed as is. If no, he would help us translate it into slang or Spanish. He would tell us what the Shakespeare version means, then we would think of something that means that in street slang or Spanish. It made me feel like I was in control. Not just some puppet put out there to perform. It’s the same as life. Your whole life is lived trying to act somebody’s part. You live up to somebody else’s expectations. But if you take control, if you choose your future, life can be a lot better.

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From my point of view, it’s about power. Words are power. When you speak beautifully or honestly, you can move people. That’s power. As an English teacher at Bushwick High School, every day I witness a war for control of words. The local dialect, the “ghetto” language is alive in the halls but beaten down in the classrooms, mocked as some kind of joke or “failed” English. Most of the students in this predominantly Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood also speak Spanish. Between Street and Spanish there’s a happy, funny, passionate music to the way the kids speak. It’s beautiful, real, artistic. And it heroically resists the attack of wave upon wave of “Standard” English assignments and tests. So, for beauty and for power, I wanted my students to take ownership of the greatest bastion of English cultural and academic snobbery, the institution of Shakespeare (himself an irreverent linguistic inventor). The kids would make Shakespeare theirs, celebrate the creative power of the Bushwick neighborhood on their terms, and engage people from outside the school to recognize and value what here goes mostly ignored or scorned.

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The fear of failure was embedded into my every thought. There were a lot of times I wanted to quit or hand over my part. Co-actors used to get mad at me ’cause I didn’t know my lines, and that made me angry. I didn’t come for two weeks. During those weeks I put a lot of thought into my problems and I thought, why give anyone the satisfaction of me failing, and why let down the rest of the people who supported me in my struggle?

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I wasn’t interested in any of the kids on student council, the “well-behaved” kids, the ones already sanctioned by the school. The kids I wanted to work with were the self-described “bad kids,” the ones who are, in their words, “real:” totally themselves, and not entirely happy with the way things are.

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Before this project, I thought I had no chance to change the way things are going. I was stuck here, stuck in Bushwick, getting a job here. No future. No escape. Same people, same school, no freedom to socialize, no opportunities to meet new people. I wouldn’t choose to live here—I was born here and I’m used to it. Drugs. Every block there’s a weed or coke spot. Cops shut them down, they just move to another house. Kids raised up looking at that will think, “That’s what life is like.” Girls having babies at a young age. It’s crazy—they can’t support the kids and that leads to problems like prostitution and dealing.

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The kids have performed Romeo y Julieta at several colleges—The New School, Brooklyn College, NYU, and Fordham—and at professional theaters in Manhattan: The Flea and New Dramatists. They much prefer the colleges, where a post-show discussion with students and professors allows them to speak about their creative process and what it means to them. At the same time, as they charm the crowd with open declarations of belief in themselves and renewed hope, they are recognizing, at least subconsciously, that they are every bit as able, if not more so, than the “elite” audiences they’re addressing. These kids, with great presence, confidence, and eloquence, mesmerize some of the very academics who, if only subconsciously, might ordinarily denigrate or pity their home culture, the “ghetto.” At every performance, audience members have told me that participating in this even has reoriented their career plans toward public service—not out of charitable sympathy for children who live in race-segregated poverty, but because they like these specific kids and want to work with them.

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The two times we did it in professional theaters—the lights, the pressure—it wasn’t the same. The people don’t get to know you, and when they see you, they might be thinking, “Keep gang-bangin’,” like we’re thugs. When we perform at the colleges, in an ordinary room, with no special lights, the audience is relaxing, like they’re at home—drinking soda, leaning back in their chairs. At the formal theater, there’s no food, no laughing, and the audience never gets to know the people telling their story—their reasons, their wishes, their goals. The way we do it at the colleges is like a narrator in a novel who gives you background, his point of view, where he’s coming from. When we talk together with the audience, it’s like we all gather around and look through one window, our window. We can help them see what we see, so they can understand us.

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There’s no set, a handful of scavenged props, and street clothes. No lights, no technology. Just people and their words. Their words. As such, the kids are concretely rehearsing for a revolution, practicing self-assurance, learning to use who they are and what they say to change the way people see them, rather than wear a mask to reassure the mainstream. The way they speak the Shakespeare is so honest, so them, it’s magical, and transcends any theater experience I’ve had. In my years of studying at the Yale School of Drama and directing professional theater, I prayed, begged, and cried for this, for honest acting, for performance that simply puts the person on stage, alive and real. Not alchemy, but life. These kids are brave enough to allow this. They, as the experts on their own lives, made all of the major acting and staging choices. My job was to ask them if they were being true to themselves.

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Start with what you are, with what you have. That’s what we did with the play. We started with nothing. Just space, chairs, our own clothes and our own words.

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Students’ attempts to write in their language are slashed by the teacher’s red pen, expression bloodied by a weapon as dangerous to belief as a knife is to the body. A small, softly-spoken phrase such as “That’s not proper English,” or “That’s not the correct way to say that,” can drop a bomb on a kid’s self-esteem. It’s saying, “The way you understand and shape the world, the way you breathe life into the self you present to others, is wrong.” School most often asks for conformity, for obedience, and offers shackles where it might provide a stage and an audience.

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This play taught me that you can put together many different styles, cultures, and customs. In life, at school, they always say, “Act sophisticated; the professional way is the only way.” This made me think, when we were rehearsing, hey, why not make the professional way—which is ties, etiquette, the suit—mix with my style, my style of being laidback, fun, comfortable. You can always do as they want, but deep inside you know who you are. In Romeo y Julieta, the deep inside gets to come outside.

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On the news, if you hear about Bushwick, you hear about violence and poverty and drugs. One of the most awakening choices the students made in contrast to this image was to have Romeo and Julieta read each other’s journals aloud. The journals contain some of Shakespeare’s most passionate speeches, here presented as the secret love poetry of two Brooklyn teens. They own these words, and make outsiders aware that, amid all the publicized misery of their lives, linguistic virtuosity—in rap, poems, conversation—is not only practiced but also prized.

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At school, we have no choices. It’s like jail. The teacher’s a corrections officer and you’re the inmate. Really. You have to ask to go to the bathroom. The bathrooms are locked. The windows are barred, hallways fenced up, we’re restricted from using certain staircases. Metal detectors, guards pushing you, rushing you, cursing you. Counselors don’t want you in their office—what if you have a problem? What if you want to kill yourself? You’re allowed four minutes between classes to socialize, four minutes of freedom. You can’t ever leave the building. You’re confined. The school abuses power. There are constant interruptions to classes—announcements, people yelling at you to take off your hat—there’s no place to concentrate and feel comfortable.

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The way the three languages—Shakespeare, Spanish, and Street—work together makes exquisite harmony and counterpoint. The rhythm and cadence, the way the words jump and dive and bounce and sing and play moves with the exciting energy of invention. The way their bodies and faces come alive, loose and comfortable and happy when they speak their words, shows me that teenagers, so feared and controlled by a school system of bells and exams and dress codes and grammar, are much, much bigger than the people who try to break them and send them into “acceptable” lives.

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The play is unrestricted. We have control, make choices. We can talk about our personal problems. It’s like our own little school in one classroom. We choose to return because it’s safe, comfortable—and we can prove the school wrong. There are people there who think we can’t do things on our own, that everything needs to be “programmed.” We started this ourselves, made all the arrangements ourselves, and we’re continuing by ourselves.

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Sometimes rehearsals felt like Mission Impossible, as we used stealth to work in empty classrooms whenever a few precious minutes became available. Because the kids have jobs after school, we worked during lunch period and, yes, they even cut classes in order to meet. There’s no sanctioned space for this activity, and no support from the school. Many times we were hassled or denied by guards, custodians, and administrators because the rehearsals weren’t officially scheduled, or the kids involved were deemed a threat to school security.

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My way of thinking has changed from doing this play. My life isn’t only Bushwick anymore. Other people are interested in us; opportunities are out there. And I made it just by being myself. Now I know I can conquer anything, make anything on my own. When it’s your own, it’s easier. It’s yours. Your life. Now I can take it to the next level. Say you have a little job at Burger King. You try your hardest, you can make any simple thing, even that, something to look forward to. Because now I see all the steps on the ladder. Before, there were maybe two steps, to school and back home. Like a pendulum on a clock, or riding a train back and forth, never getting off.

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The show is always a work-in-progress, adding new cast members, new lines, new scenes, continually improvising. Sometimes we stop the performance, change something, and move on, letting the audience witness the experiment. The actors are always in full view of the audience, seated at tables upstage when they’re not performing. You can see them eating, looking for a prop, whispering with each other, smiling, enjoying the show and the audience’s reactions. The kids and the audience are one group, some of whom happen to get up from time to time and act out a story. It’s not a product, but a process open to the public. This isn’t revolution by reverse-subjugation, but by inclusion.

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When we perform in a plain room, we’re on the same level, the same floor as the audience. That’s a metaphor for the changes we’re making, in our lives and theirs.

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Now I’m part of this community, and that’s a blessing. My life has new color and new music.

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The good side of the neighborhood is friendly people who look out for you—we’re all family. Meet me the first day and you’ll like me, you’ll want to hang out. In the summer, we have block parties, we all get together. Basketball tournaments and a football league keep some kids off the street. The smell of food on Knickerbocker Avenue—Spanish, Chinese—makes you happy. You hear Spanish music, rap music. People in the store greeting you, not following you ’cause they think you’re stealing. The neighborhood has a vibe, a rhythm. That shows up in Romeo y Julieta—the family, the closeness, the way we overcame personal and cultural differences in rehearsals, the way we stay after and speak with the audience, getting to know each other. And the way, in the big party scene, we ask the audience to stand up and dance merengue with us.

Excerpt from the play:

Act II, scene i

ROMEO

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.

For I never saw true beauty till this night.

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIETA

En poco estimais vuestra mano, buen peregrino,

Que solo muestra humilde devocion.

Las manos del santo toca el que es peregrino,

Palma con plama, es beso santo de palmero.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, tampoco el pilgrim?

JULIETA

Si, pilgrim, lips para decir oraciones.

ROMEO

Oh mi buen santo, let lips do what hands do.

JULIETA

Los santos no se mueven si no por las plegarias.

ROMEO

Don’t move hasta que llegue mi plegaria.

Y que vuestros labios clean my lips of sin.

They kiss.

JULIETA

Venga a mis labios el pecado que vuestros tenian.

ROMEO

Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

Give me my sin again.

They kiss.

JULIETA

You kiss by the book.

Romeo y Julieta plays Bushwick again in early May. For more details, call 212-946-6475, or email stephenhaff@hotmail.com.

Contributors

Rafael Morales

Rafael Morales is a student from Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Stephen Haff

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