“The theater [can be used] as a tool for personal and social change,” said Jan Mandell, teacher and director of the Central Touring Theater (CTT) Program at St. Paul’s Central High School. For the past thirty years, her CTT students have used theater for change: creating, performing and touring original theater throughout the Twin Cities. They delight, inspire and motivate diverse audiences with their artistic expressions of social issues.
“The students work together, play together inside and outside of the theater, and have formed a very positive group for each other and those around them – and that’s great,” said a parent at CTT’s final performance for the 2007-08 school year.
CTT’s printed program claims the title of “Minnesota’s premier youth social activism theater troupe.” Its students come from a variety of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and are “engaged in vigorous theater training that helps them to learn about each other and to transform their communities.”
Two years ago, Mandell asked her students, “How do we lower the achievement gap?” Closing the achievement gap between student groups is one of the goals set forth in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) current Strategic Plan. CTT students responded with the creation of Seeds of Change.
St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) administration describes Seeds of Change as “both a production and a support network that aims to lower the achievement gap between African American males and other student groups.” At its start in 2006, nine students (six black males, a black female, a white female and an Asian male) participated in the development of the play. That number has since grown to twenty.
Students meet weekly and receive one-on-one academic tutoring, homework help, and a mentoring relationship with a Concordia University student, who serves as a positive role model for the students. Mandell describes the program as highly successful. In this group, the achievement gap has been lowered – their grades have improved and, with the exception of one dropout, they all plan on attending college.
CTT’s show this year featured a pre-show performance by the Seeds of Change which was scripted from approximately 400 pages of notes transcribed from conversations with the Seed of Change participants over a period of two years. The production earned the 2008 AARP Ethel Percy Legacy Award for Innovation, which recognizes public high school programs that have either fostered greater intergenerational understanding or enhanced civic engagement between the school and its community.
Before the May 16 performance, Mandell cautioned the audience to “bear witness without judgment.” The performance opens with a recitation of statistics pertaining to African American males in SPPS, where black males make up 8% of the school population.
• Black males graduate at a lower rate than Asian American students, Caucasian students, English Language Learners, or students with special needs.
• Black males are more likely to be recorded as an offender in senior High School.
• Three out of five senior high school behavior incidents involved an African American student as an offender. As a result, 22% of black males are expelled.
In short dramatic scenes, students reenacted some of the pressures, taken from their own experiences, that directly influence on a teen’s academic performance. For example, black males are teased for acting white, a boy reluctantly helps to take care of his younger sister when his single mom is at work, and a deadbeat dad visits his son.
“As Seeds of Change, we are here to prove that not all black males fit into the stereotypes and to show that we are capable of succeeding without having to commit crimes,” says one student. Black males are “seeds that will become trees in our communities,” recites another student.
A grandmother, in tears when the performance ended, said she felt “so overwhelmed.”
During the after-performance discussion, a young man described the hallway scene as particularly moving because, as in the play, he has often been compared to his brother. One mother said, “it [CTT] brought my daughter out of her shell into a beautiful woman.”
“How do I plant this seed [in my classroom]?” asked a teacher in the audience.
“It all starts off with building a community in a safe place,” Mandell answered. “It’s a long conversation.”
Safiyyah, who was in the audience with her toddler son, beamed with pride as she watched her brother, Abdur Shareef, perform on stage.
“It’s nice,” she said. “He’s thinking of doing something other than playing sports. He’s talking about college, which he didn’t before he joined CTT.”
“Being in Seeds of Change has been great,” Abdur added. “It kept me out of trouble. The best thing though is that I learned to take responsibility for my actions. Before I would blame everything on others. Instead of saying it’s not my fault, I accept it. I use my time more wisely and now I do my homework.”
Abdur will graduate from Central this summer. As he awaits acceptance to the college of his choice, he anticipates majoring in business with a minor in theater.
‘These kids can change and when they do change, they stay so committed,” observes Mandell. She predicts that they will remain committed even when they are in college, because they have been involved in the process. “It’s empowering to change themselves first, create an organization, then help the next generation.”
Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.