"I feel it coming together"
“When Ms. Mailey do that, it means she’s stressed out,” a student whispers to me, pointing at her drama teacher. Ms. Mailey’s digging her fingertips into the side of her head and scanning the auditorium. It’s two days before show time for the thirty students in Libby Middle School’s production of “Fame,” and things are still just coming together. The microphones, strapped to faces with masking tape, keep malfunctioning. The drumline, with instruments made of plastic buckets from Lowe’s, is not there to rehearse with the dancers. And after four-plus hours of rehearsal, the students’ focus is waning. Two girls are doing homework in the audience and minding their younger sisters, waiting for their scene, and, despite the chaos, one tells me they’re ready. “We just need to practice some more,” she says.
In many ways, Libby looks like other schools in Englewood. It is designated as an on-probation, Level 3 school (the lowest academic performance rating), its student body is comprised entirely of African-American and Hispanic students from low-income homes, and it was on CPS’ first list of potential school closings. But this scene is at the heart of what sets the school apart. For the past four years, all students, fifth through eighth grade, have had the opportunity to be part of the spring musical, the annual culmination of the school’s extensive arts program.
The play is part of the vision that Kurt Jones brought to the school when he became principal six years ago. The middle school curriculum at Libby requires students to choose one arts class—dance, drama, art, choir, or drumline—each semester. Jones, who studied drama and has taught in Chicago and Peoria, encourages students not to stick with just one.
“What we’ve done is try to replicate what is done on the North Side,” says Jones. “It gives them the opportunity to find their own skills…to find what it is that makes them tick. If we don’t get it to them, they’ll never know.” Since the arts program began, attendance has improved, violence has lessened, and Jones is “really starting to see academic growth flourish.” Eighty-three percent of students met their academic growth targets this year, suggesting that Libby is on its way out of the Level 3 designation.
Jones estimates that the entire program costs about $100,000 each year, but it is funded mostly by a $75,000 national grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program and is made possible through a partnership with the YMCA. According to Nicole York, the YMCA Resource Coordinator at Libby, the YMCA has similar partnerships in fourteen other Chicago schools. The other partnerships have different focuses, like gardening or homework help, but all offer programming for parents as well, such as GED and computer classes.
While there are high schools in Chicago that offer ample arts programs, these programs are rare in elementary and middle schools, especially on the South Side. Only last November did CPS approve an “Arts Education Plan” that will require 120 minutes of arts programming in all K-8 schools, to begin in the Fall. As it stands, access to programs like Libby’s is incredibly limited.
Yateece Johnson is in eighth grade and doesn’t sing as loudly in rehearsals as she should and anyone who meets her knows she can. “When I’m at home, I sing all day and I sound so good…but I get nervous in front of people,” she says. Yateece’s neighborhood high school is Richards Career Academy, a Level 2 school, but she is insistent on leaving this neighborhood because “there’s too much violence.” Instead, she’ll go to Roosevelt High School, a lower-performing school than Richards, but a safer one and all the way on the North Side. She wanted to go to Chicago High School for the Arts, or ChiArts, one of the few schools in Chicago that, like the school in “Fame,” has a competitive audition process and rigorous area-specific arts training, but she overslept the day of the audition.
Yateece is just one example of a Libby student who bears an uncanny resemblance to her fictional character, sassy Carmen Diaz, who drops out of school to become a star. “I wanna be like Beyoncé,” she told me one day. “Her birthday is in September, my birthday is in September. We got the same sign. She got talent, I got talent.”
In past years, Libby has done “The Wiz,” “Grease,” and “The Lion King,” but “Fame” gives these middle school students a chance to portray kids grappling with pressures familiar to life at Libby. The play follows a group of students through four years of an intense New York performing arts high school, condensing their relationships (only barely alluded to in Libby’s production), academic difficulties, and performance successes into an hour-and-a-half mashup of both the original 1980 musical and the 2009 remake. The dancers get a chance to perform a variety of styles—a little ballet, hip hop, lyrical, and African dance—all executed with a precision that demonstrates their six months of rehearsal. The actors portray the ecstasy of getting into their dream school and the disappointment of not getting their dream roles. A scene at the school dance could easily be mistaken for a birthday party, with kids freestyling to music they seem to genuinely enjoy. It’s often hard to say whether the students are acting or just being themselves.
That said, there are pressures in the young actors’ lives that their fictional counterparts know nothing about. Despite Libby being what Eddie Ferrell, of Libby’s Local School Council, calls “a safe haven,” the students are not strangers to Englewood’s notorious violence. In January, fifteen-year-old Libby graduate Christopher Lattin was shot seventeen times and killed eight blocks from his middle school. At Libby, Christopher’s name has a sort of reverence associated with it. He was the adult Simba in last year’s production of “The Lion King,” a character that is a beacon of hope, a future leader. Seventh grader Cimarron Hunt played young Simba in the same production, and was pointed out to me up front as being extremely talented. “We were buds,” he said of Christopher. “He taught me two things: he taught me to be truthful, be you. And the second one was to be yourself and don’t let them bring you down. Show them that you’re better than that.”
Jewel Jordan, the seventh grader who initially told me about Christopher, has already planned out her next few years, her path to “showing them she’s better than that.” She has applied to The Stony Brook School, a boarding school in New York with ties to Stony Brook University, which is where she wants to go for college. Like Yateece, she sees theater as a stepping stone to something else.
On closing night, a change has come over the auditorium. As is tradition, the final show is a dinner and fundraiser, costing guests—a mixture of teachers, parents, Mr. Jones’ friends, CPS administrators, and YMCA staff members—$35 each. The auditorium is decorated in a Hollywood theme and the young actors serve dinner to their fans. Three days of thunderstorms and flooding, however, have caused a power outage in the neighborhood. “Mr. Jones freaked out,” Laneise Cotton—a soloist in the show—told me, giggling. Power was restored forty-five minutes before the start of the event, adding some true production drama to the night.
Backstage, the dancers are wearing perfect ballerina buns. The younger siblings who had wandered around the auditorium during rehearsals sit on their mothers’ laps in the audience. In the final scene, the students’ graduation from high school, Laneise, who had refused to project her voice in rehearsals, belts her solo in “Hold Your Dream” and struts in her high heels. The cast gathers around her in graduation gowns, supplementing her immense voice with song and clapping.
Laneise will sing the song again on June 12, at her own graduation. While she was casually wandering around before the show I asked her why she wasn’t getting ready for the solo. She just smirked and said, “It’s a piece of cake.” Anesa Daniels, this year’s salutatorian and a powerful presence on the stage, echoed this, saying she was far more nervous about graduation than the show. “I’m entering the real world,” she said, recoiling into her seat.
Before the play began, two PSAs that students created were shown, one about gun violence, called “Drug Dealing is Not Appealing,” and one about why each performer wanted to be famous, appropriately called “Fame.” The juxtaposition of these videos embodied many of the themes that students articulated to me, an awareness of the realities of their community, a striving to transcend those realities, and a grasp on some idea of how to do that.
One mother, whose son graduated from Libby three years ago and still participates in theater in high school, admitted that “being a young black boy in this community is not always easy,” but said that Libby “introduces the kids to things they didn’t know they have.” Felicia Riggins, Cimarron’s mother, sat proudly in the first row. Because of this program, she says, “He’s blossoming into a very disciplined, well-rounded young man. He knows now that the decisions we make determine what happens tomorrow.”
The day after seeing the show, Cimarron’s little brother demonstrated the dance moves he had seen in “Fame” for his third-grade classmates. “He was like, ‘I wanna be in the play,’” Cimarron told me, before turning back to make sure he hadn’t missed his cue.