Romeo & Juliet in Harlem: Darkest Hour

Last week, students from the Summer Bridge Program at Frederick Douglass Academy II performed their culminating piece, “Romeo & Juliet in Harlem: Darkest Hour” in front of an audience of family and friends. The piece was created over the course of the summer, and was inspired by studies of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as well as historical figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Led by Teaching Artist  Jadele McPherson, the project began with students learning improv exercises and ensemble based prologues. Students studied writers Shakespeare, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes as well as NYC theater/performance artists  Lemon Anderson, Danny Hoch and Sarah Jones to gain a stylistic and historical framework for their project.

“The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels:”

Jadele encouraged her students  to share personal and familial experiences throughout the summer as a means of connecting students from different cultures- the classroom was made up of students with Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Italian, Dominican, Southern and African roots. Using the diversity of New York City and of Harlem as inspiration, students infused their own style into the piece. The class was able to weave a storyline that includes a neighborhood Jamaican taxicab driver and a  group of girls investigating a school wide rumor alongside Shakespeare’s classical text. Students Rikwan and Michael worked on creating a two man performance of Langston Hughes’ Weary Blues– bringing the song of a traveled blues man to life:

“Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, 
      I heard a Negro play.
Down lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull palor of an old gas light… “

At the beginning of the summer, says Teaching Artist Jadele, students were very timid, anxious to perform or even work together in group improv exercises. They felt embarrassed to act in front of others. After four weeks of work, the students really broke out of their shells. One student, Shasse G., was often upset that she had to attend the summer session. By the end of the summer, when Shasse performed the only solo monologue in the show- she was elegant and fearless.

We can’t wait to see what these students accomplish during programming this fall!