Duke University Alumni Magazine

Perchance To Dream
Introducing The Bard
by Robert J. Bliwise

The play's the thing; Henderson left prepares his young troupe
Photo: Jim Wallace

With a boost from Duke, a durham middle school takes Shakespeare -- and a passion for performance -- on the road.
itting in a darkened theater just before show-time, Joseph Henderson muses, "This is a Hollywood story." It certainly could be, given who he is--a teacher who becomes downright tearful in describing the successes of his students, and where he is--Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

     Henderson runs something called "Shakespeare Through the Eyes of the Middle School" for Durham's Rogers-Herr Middle School. About a third of the school's students are eligible for free lunches. But that economic indicator indicates nothing about educational potential: Every nine weeks for the last two school years, Henderson's students have studied and performed a Shakespeare play. They have confronted and, to one degree or another, mastered A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet. The program aims to improve reading skills and to introduce children to classical literature.

     But in late May, what sixteen children are being introduced to--through wide-open eyes indeed--is the laboratory theater at the Kennedy Center. They are drawn to the stage for a production of Hamlet. They aren't there to see the play; they are there to perform it.

     The trip to Washington is in part a Duke production. It was inspired by history professor emerita Anne Firor Scott. She spread the word about the middle-school project after bringing a freshman seminar to see Rogers-Herr's Hamlet performed in a Durham bookstore. The alumni club chapter of the Triangle provided some of the funding. The Duke Club of Washington contributed as well, and led the group through its capital-city wanderings. Duke's alumni affairs office, another funding source for the trip, had a key role to play: It made the approach to the Kennedy Center to accommodate a school production.

     Act I of the Washington visit brings the students to the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express' Henry IV, Part I, performed at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Henderson preps his group by describing the play in terms sure to connect with sixth-graders, and especially with sixth-grade thespians: "It's about the education of a prince, a young boy growing up and learning to become a prince." The prince is torn, he explains, between his friendship for the corrupt character Falstaff and his royal responsibilities. There's a lesson for students, he says, who find themselves choosing between their commitment to the theater and influences that would divert them into less wholesome pursuits. Like Falstaff, they may have to make some unpopular choices.

     "Ask yourself, do I believe that relationship? Ask yourself about the quality of acting. They're doing the same things you guys are doing. Just because they're getting paid doesn't mean they're great; just because they're over at the Folger doesn't mean they're better." A performer can be absolutely still and yet steal the show, he reminds them. "They have a lot more money than we do. Watch the lighting. Does it help? Would our show be better with more costumes?"

     The Folger's appropriately effusive and well-rounded Falstaff, as it turns out, is a Duke alumnus, Carl Martin '89. Martin, himself a former public-school teacher and Teach for America participant, is also the director of education for the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. After the performance, he comments that as school groups go, this one was noticeably engaged with the action. Henderson says his kids loved the sword fights.

     For the Rogers-Herr performance, the Kennedy Center draws an audience of more than 200 kids and teachers; they come from Washington schools with which the center has well-established links. But one sixth-grade humanities teacher, Cleveland Bryant, attends with his Georgetown Day School students as the result of a chance meeting. At a Duke basketball game, he had asked Henderson for driving directions. That request somehow led to a Shakespeare-suffused conversation and, then, to the performance invitation. According to a Kennedy Center public-affairs official, Ginger Rogers, a student performance with a student audience is almost without precedent for the center. "It's especially nice to have Shakespeare presented to classes in a form they will be able to assimilate and understand," she says.

Andrew Foster, who plays Hamlet, is asked what lesson he's learned from inhabiting his role. "Pay attention to what you're doing in life and always make the best decisions."
Photo: Jim Wallace

     Having its own sense of a Hollywood story in the making, CNN tapes the entire performance; its local producer, Thom Patterson, tells his crew that the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy is something key to capture. "I love Shakespeare," he says. "I never thought I'd get a chance to do a story on Shakespeare because everything we cover in this city is so political." The network was sold on the story, he adds, because it represents an unusual approach to improving reading and writing skills. And with all its visual allure, the play is, for television, the thing.

     Before the performance, Henderson steps in front of the audience to talk about the relevance of the 400-year-old Hamlet. "It's about loss. A young man loses his father and loses his way and doesn't know how to find it; he loses his love, Ophelia, and eventually loses his life."

     This Hamlet, reduced to forty-five minutes, is energized by a dose of dancing, gospel music, and Nina Simone, on tape, with "Here Comes the Sun." And the sword fight is dazzling in its theatrical deadliness. Afterwards, Henderson asks the audience of schoolchildren, "How many of you would like to do this?" They all raise their hands. A girl wonders how the young actors learned Elizabethan English. Henderson answers, "Don't let anyone tell you it's difficult."

      Soaking in her surroundings post-performance, Natasha Weeks, who plays Ophelia, says, "This is the place where I wanted to be; I wanted to act in the Kennedy Center. It's amazing." It's certainly an amazing setting for a twelve-year-old. Andrew Foster, who plays Hamlet, is asked what lesson he's learned from inhabiting his role. "Pay attention to what you're doing in life and always make the best decisions," he says--thoughtfully echoing the advice of mentor-teacher Henderson. He used to have a hard time reading Shakespeare, he says, but no longer. "If we just did it, anyone else can do it as long as they set themselves to it." Maybe not exactly anyone else: As the group recovers its props from the theater, a Kennedy Center security guard comments, "It's pretty good to be doing Hamlet at that age."

      Henderson sees Shakespeare's appeal as undiminished. The appeal endures even if, as he puts it, accommodations have to be made for a generation reared on videos, afflicted by short attention spans, and sometimes caught up in subcultures. So after Ophelia dies in his Hamlet production, the staging of the funeral procession is taken from the African-American tradition. In his classes, he's constantly drawing links between current events and the Bard's dramatic moments: There's the family-identity confusion surrounding Secretary of State Madeline Albright, for example, and there are Shylock's manipulations to give his daughter a fresh start in life.

     "We could easily do a textbook presentation of the play, a BBC production. We do learn the play as it was written. But it matters that our context is the urban public school. And for the play to be accessible, the sounds and the visual images have to come from the experiences of these kids and their parents."

      Duke English and drama professor Dale Randall, who teaches Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies, has his doubts about how well sixth-graders can grapple with Shakespeare. His first exposure was to Julius Caesar in the ninth grade--a "simple, plain, and powerful" drama, as he describes it. But he says the plays are likely to exert a pull even on young imaginations. And the Bard is as big as ever in contemporary culture, he notes, with about a half-dozen film versions in the past year or so. He also likes the concept of moving between page and stage. "I'm always reminding students that these are not just literary masterpieces; they were scripts written to be played down at the Globe. They were written to be heard and seen."

     A Randall colleague, English professor Clyde Ryals, saw the Rogers-Herr students in last year's Macbeth, as well as a local production of their Hamlet this year. He views the exercise as an antidote to a popular culture that has largely erased interest in historical understanding. At the same time, the experience of acting acquaints schoolchildren "with almost a new language, which is kind of a formal English language, a poetic English language, to which they have not been accustomed."

     "They also learn to get into a part, to be someone other than themselves for a short while," Ryals says. "That is a great exercise in imagination for them. It is a great moral exercise for them as well: They learn from Shakespeare what is right and what is wrong." Shakespeare's plays, after all, invariably end up with the morally good characters prevailing, or at least with the morally reprehensible characters exposed and humiliated.

      A teacher well-equipped to identify with the challenges facing his young charges, Henderson grew up in Durham's Few Gardens housing project. An indifferent student, he nevertheless discovered Shakespeare from a homework assignment and became determined not to let go. "I found out early I could read and make sense of Shakespeare. It gave me an enormous amount of confidence. Hopefully, that is what it does for these kids. They feel they have somehow confronted this masterpiece, and it carries over to the point where a lesser writer must look much less challenging."

     He went on to the North Carolina School of the Arts and later Stratford-Upon-Avon's Shakespeare Institute--becoming the institute's youngest graduate. Before returning to Durham, he spent a couple of years directing and acting in London and New York.

     Henderson revels in student achievements beyond Shakespeare: There are accounts of speaking impediments overcome, of self-confidence blossoming. One of his young actors presented a book report with such verve and confidence that he earned applause from his classmates. "I knew Hamlet was probably the play they could fail at easiest. But this way, if they succeed at it, everything else in literature would seem easy."

     "It seems I have some ability at this, but I also feel I have responsibility to keep these plays alive for urban middle-school students and parents," says Henderson in a self-probing moment. "I think often, what am I giving up artistically to be doing this? But I'm fortunate that I can be creating theater; I'm fortunate that I can be doing something that matters."

      To be doing something that matters, or not to be doing something that matters: That is the question, and not for teachers and artists alone. Joe Henderson, his community and university boosters, and his kids seem to have arrived at a comfortable answer.                                            

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