Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Different Angle...


The news is crazy with stories of tension between black & brown folk in LA. I want to write something but I am a little overwhelmed. I see, quite often in this city, shit that makes you think, "It's a wrap." But I also see, everyday, countless reasons to be hopeful. The scale see-saws constantly. We each have to decide which side we're going to drop our weight on. As a writer aching to tackle this subject, I have to find a way to express the former (the dire shit) without seeming defeatist and bleak, and to express the latter (the hope, the love, the connections forged across the bullshit) without seeming oblivious and Pollyanna-ish. In the meantime, I'm offering up this review of a truly fantastic documentary, OT: Our Town, that comes at all these issues from a much different angle than the media currently is. This is going to be re-printed in Blood Beats Vol. 2. It's from the year 2003.


Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that most-performed of American plays, is, on its surface, a throwback to a time when America and Americans were both understood to be “white,” when the mainstream values espoused and celebrated were decidedly small-town and Christian, with family, marriage, church and (homogenous) community as the unshakeable pillars of life. If those perceptions and elements were the sum of the play, it’d be nothing more than a fetishistic footnote, a nostalgia piece occasionally revived for camp value or ironic “deconstruction.” But Wilder was grappling with “something eternal” in all of us – that connection to spirit that is found in all the meaningful relationships in our lives. When imagined and executed not that long ago by students and faculty at Compton’s Manuel Dominguez High School, the play was relocated to Compton and peopled with black and brown folk who mingled cultures and accents without even thinking about it. And while Wilder might be baffled by the slang, clothing and music used to modernize his celebrated work, he’d undoubtedly recognize the people and their universal concerns — love and connection, loss and grief.

Video and commercial director Scott Hamilton Kennedy stumbled upon the subject matter for his first documentary, OT: Our Town, in 1999, after he began dating high school English teacher Catherine Borek, who told him of her and a colleague’s plans to stage Our Town with their students in Compton — the first play produced at Manuel Dominguez in 20 years. With a head filled with preconceptions and stereotypes propagated by hood films and rap videos, Kennedy picked up a camera and trekked to Compton to document the process, from auditions to opening night. What he found was a Los Angeles that’s never been put on film. (“We’re not that different,” says one girl, “but we’re way different from what you think we are.”)

While gangs, poverty and teen pregnancy are inarguable facts of life in Compton, Kennedy also found funny, charismatic and at times stunningly insightful kids whose lives involved families of all shapes and configurations. The bitterness spit by a circle of young boys over their absent fathers — and the struggle of one boy to garner his father’s attention — is balanced by the story of Ebony Starr, a young Latina whose prostitute mom dropped her off at her black babysitter’s one day and never returned; Ebony was adopted at the age of five months by that black family and, by the time Our Town went into production at her high school, was big sister to a crew of nappy headed little brothers. (The teenage Ebony’s matter-of-fact analysis of the perpetuated cycles of poverty, unwed mothers and hopelessness is a highlight of the film.)

Quinceneras, Trent Reznor, proms and the banal dramas of parent-child conflict unfold before the camera as students and teachers wage battle to mount the play. Perhaps the brisk (76 minutes) film’s greatest strength, aside from its winning subjects, is Kennedy’s deft editing skills. Cutting between rehearsals and interviews with students and faculty, footage shot in the kids’ homes with their families and the acclaimed 1977 television broadcast of the play starring Hal Holbrook and Robby Benson, Kennedy creates a smart, seamless commentary on race and class, and the expectations (or lack of) that are often attached to them. He’s helped greatly by thick currents of heart and humor that pull you into the unfolding tale, and to the edge of your seat as countdown to opening night — and to answering the question of whether all the kids will be able to find and sustain enough self-confidence to see the production through to its actual perfomance — begins. (This is the film that the wanly imagined Camp aspired to be.)

Early in rehearsals for the play, tension arises when some of the students resist the suggestion to modernize the text with current vernacular and urban culture references because they’re afraid that doing so will simply confirm stereotype. What they want is to prove they’re capable of doing the unexpected. They needn’t have worried. Working with no funds and no support from the school (which doesn’t have an auditorium and in which these newly hatched dramaramas play second — or third, or fourth — fiddle to the school’s athletes), the OT posse trump stereotype and, on and off-stage, are utterly captivating. So is the film. The slow bonds that develop between cast mates, the insecurities that flare before cooling down, and the lump-in-the-throat payoff do what all good movies do: They take you where you haven’t been, and introduce you to people that you don’t know – even if you think you do.

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