For me there’s something inspirational and informative when you weave together music and dance in order to convey meaning. While I’ve been told that I can’t sing or dance (haters), I think I’ve learned a thing or two from Broadway musicals. Man of La Mancha depicts Europe during The Middle Ages. Ragtime the Musical presents the dual dynamics of immigration and race in turn-of-the-century America. Purlie presents the challenges of being Black in the South during the Jim Crow era. In RENT you experience the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s.
As a history teacher in New York City, Broadway is a natural tool to help my students acquire knowledge – both inside and outside of the classroom. After all, I teach at an arts school.
I’d have to say that my all-time favorite musical play is Memphis: A New Musical. Memphis tells the story of a mixed race couple navigating love in the segregated south of the 1950’s. It also tells the story of the development of rhythm & blues music. I’ve seen it on Broadway three times, but what is most wonderful is that a live performance was recorded and is available on DVD. This allows me to share Memphis with my students in the classroom.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I teach a course in African American Studies that explores African American history, culture and perspective. As we discuss the period surrounding the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court Decision, Memphis provides a vehicle for the class to enhance our discussion of the era. Our students find a connection to the characters in the musical: the challenges they face, and choices that they are forced to make.
I’ll never forget the first time that I showed Memphis to my class. We completed the first act (spoiler alert), which ends with a gut-wrenching, two handkerchief song sung by the supporting character Gator. At intermission I said,
“We have to stop here, the bell is about to ring.”
I was met with a chorus of,
“You’re kidding, right?!”
“That ain’t right Mister!”
Then Jonathan quieted everyone down,
“Yo! Yo! Everybody listen! Mister, how are you going to bring us to this emotional point and then tell us to see you tomorrow?”
He was absolutely right. They were all correct. There was nothing for me to consider or to say but,
“Everyone take a five minute bathroom break and we’ll continue. I’ll clear it with your teachers.”
Not only were they right, I also respected the manner in which they advocated for themselves. We finished the play and the final act was followed by a chorus of applause, laughter, and a few tears. (Oops, spoiler alert again.)
A year or two later I’m waiting for a bus near my home. I spot the actor Derrick Baskin who played the character Gator standing nearby. As a rule I don’t approach public figures. But this time I threw caution to the wind and went up to him. I told him that I was a high school history teacher and that I show Memphis to my students. I told him how they connect to the musical and have a special connection to the character that he plays. He was struck by what I said and asked me to reach out to him via email.
We arranged for Derrick to visit our school. In an alignment of the stars, we were even able to arrange it for a day that I was screening Memphis for our students. We timed it for Derrick to arrive just as the first act was ending and his character’s emotional song captured the students. They had just settled into intermission as we entered the small theater in school where we were watching the film. The kids looked towards the two of us and the room went briefly and eerily silent. Then there was a sustained eruption of screaming and shouting. They couldn’t believe their eyes – there he was, and now here he is.
Derrick watched the final act with us and held an extended Q&A with our students afterwards. This moment was an absolute highlight of my teaching career. It was equally memorable for our girls and boys.
Other musical opportunities also came about in the ensuing years. Our school at one time was part of a grant program that provided our students tickets to Broadway shows. Through this opportunity we’ve taken our students to see Lion King, Beautiful (the Carole King story), On Your Feet (Gloria Estefan), and A Bronx Tale.
Most recently, our students attended a performance of the musical Hamilton. The Gilder-Lehrman Institute supports an education program that provides students with tickets to a special matinee performance of the show. I’d previously seen Hamilton and paid quite a few “Benjamins” to do so; this opportunity for our kids was precious because I’d applied for tickets since the program’s inception. Last year our school finally was invited to participate. The program is geared towards 11th grade students taking U.S. History but I also had a class of 12th grade students enrolled in an AP U.S. History course. I emailed Gilder and asked if these students could be included as well. Gilder kindly said that they could.
The program requires that teachers incorporate Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers into their curriculum. This we already do. In addition, the students are tasked with creating a poem, rap, song, or performance piece on the era that we submit directly to Gilder. I wish all of my assignments were done with such eagerness and enthusiasm.
The performance was enjoyed by one and all. The students came away with an array of understanding, securing a thoughtful awareness of the fundamental role that an immigrant, not unlike themselves or their families, played in the founding of this nation. They also came away with a deeper understanding of the rivalry between Federalists, such as Hamilton who advocated for a strong central government, and Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for a weaker central government. I found myself hoping that one of their Regents Examination in U.S. History essays was on this theme. Alas it wasn’t, but our students did fairly well on the exam nonetheless.
So, I find myself asking, what are my next steps? How can I continue to utilize musical theater in the history classroom? Maybe I should sing and “shake my groove thang” for them? Sadly, I can hear the adults saying,
“We want to decrease the dropout rate, Mason, not increase it.”
And as for my students,
“No Mister! Nooooo! Please stop!”
Haters – every last one of them.