Thursday, August 27, 2009

OT: Our Town

From a display case filled with trophies, you can clearly see the attention that Dominiguez High School in Compton, Calif., lavishes on its sports program.

The school's drama program, on the other hand, had apparently been allowed to evaporate. Until a determined English teacher named Catherine Borek came along, Dominiguez students hadn't put on a school play in 20 years. For a comeback, she chose Our Town.

Borek's attempt to put on a show is the subject of the 2002 documentary OT: Our Town, by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. This isn't a perfect documentary - there are spots where the film seems a bit slow. Still, it's a compelling look at how theatre gives teenagers a sense of accomplishment and a battered community a sense of pride.

On the face of it, I can't think of two more dissimilar places than a poor, largely Latino and African-American city plagued by gang violence and the rural, whitebread New Hampshire town in Thorton Wilder's play. And at first, some of the students can't make the connection either.

But Borek, and fellow teacher Karen Greene, persevere. They help them see how this story relates to their lives, how its themes are universal. They use props from the kids' own lives to make it personal. It's clear from listening to the students as they discuss the play and go through rehearsals and finally perform onstage that they "get it."

The same night I watched OT: Our Town, I read an interesting article in The Washington Post about Rocco Landesman, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. What struck me this time wasn't anything Mr. Landesman said but a quote from the ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NEA:

"You have to show the rest of the country that the arts are a benefit to them," says Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson.

Certainly the drama students at Dominiguez High School, their families and friends understand the benefit of the arts. And I'm pretty sure a lot of other Americans know it, too. But for anyone who still needs convincing, this documentary is a good place to start.

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