Alcott College Prep freshman Melciades Somarriba was directing a scene from a play for the first time in his life.
“If you could get in Jack’s face when you start arguing, that would be great,” Somarriba suggested, then he paused. “Wait, are you both OK with that?”
It was the day after his English class had visited TimeLine theater to see “Boy,” a play about gender identity and love. The actors were visiting his school to perform scenes with students.
That’s how Somarriba ended up urging one of those actors to crowd a classmates to make a scene “feel more alive.” The play’s intimacy designer, Charlie Baker, had just told the class about the importance of actors respecting physical boundaries, so Somarriba made sure everyone felt comfortable with his suggested approach.
Teachers at Alcott and other CPS schools partnered with TimeLine’s education program partly because the curriculum in CPS high schools “offers little in terms of performance or creative expression,” said P.J. Powers, TimeLine co-founder.
His theater puts “teaching artists” in CPS classrooms for week-and-a-half long residencies. They conduct workshops with students on topics related to a production running at the theater.
This year, Alcott English teacher Elizabeth Gonzalez’s class teamed up with TimeLine.
The plot of “Boy” was inspired by a real life incident: After a botched circumcision, a child is raised by his parents as a girl named “Samantha,” but as he grows up he rejects this identity and changes his name to “Adam.”
Teaching artists Lexi Saunders and Charles Andrew Gardner worked with Gonzalez’s ninth-graders. They discussed identity and held workshops where students acted scenes from the play.
Before the program, Gonzalez said, some of her students didn’t know the difference between gender identity and sexuality; others held onto stereotypes. It made sense to try to clear up these misconceptions, Gonzalez said, because some Alcott ninth-graders use gender-neutral pronouns.
“Even the kids who are giggly had really cool questions, and they got up and acted,” she said. “It’s probably something they never would have done otherwise.”
Alcott student Anthony Medina performed a scene in which “Adam” tries to introduce his girlfriend to his father. The class conversations about identity helped Anthony think about how to approach the scene.
“What I learned is that it was very important for Adam … to show that this is who he is — a man, not a woman like they thought,” Medina said after class.
CPS freshmen are required to study drama, Gonzalez said, and “you could go kind of the old-school route and teach Shakespeare — you know, Romeo and Juliet — but we wanted to switch things up and make it more interesting.”
Powers is grateful for “courageous” teachers willing “to give up seven class sessions for something that may not be on a standardized test,” he said.
“The students came into it so open, and eager, and excited, and just no stigma around these topics whatsoever.”
Saunders and Gardner shared the most powerful moment of their residency at Alcott, when two students in one class introduced themselves using they/them/their pronouns.
Saunders remembers the looks on their faces when it occurred to them that, “We’re doing this poetry exercise where I can have a space to write about this experience” — and then, that “There’s someone in my classroom who uses the same pronouns as me.”
The poetry exercise was based on “What It’s Like To Be A Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t),” by Patricia Smith. Gardner said one student titled their poem “What It’s Like to Be Confused About Your Gender Identity…”
Gardner said seeing students tell classmates that they preferred they/them/their pronouns is what “inclusive theater” is all about: “giving people an opportunity to see themselves on stage and in art to validate who they are.”