On Tuesday and Wednesday of this March, the Curran held student matinees for 28 schools in the Bay Area, including Sonoma Academy, Oakland and San Francisco School for the Arts, Ida B. Wells High School, Mission High School, Raoul Wallenberg High School, and the Liberian Baptist Seminary. Based on a sampling of conversations with several of the teenagers in the audience, which totaled two thousand theater-goers over the two days, it seemed to be the first time for the vast majority of them to be attending a play. Their anticipation of such an event was certainly palpable. Even touching.
A well-behaved and orderly lot, it was still a crowd full of adolescent hormones and the heightened excitement of their all having escaped their home rooms for the day. The decibel level in the Curran’s refurbished lobby peaked each day as the curtain time approached. The first day, a few boys preened over in a corner pre-performance for a gaggle of giggling uniformed girls, a kind of theatrical event all its own. The second day, a surge of twelve and thirteen-year-old students from the Oakland Military Institute marched into the lobby with a preternatural self-possession. Flirting was the last thing on their disciplined minds - although when they arrive at fifteen that same sense of discipline will enable them, no doubt, to march and flirt at the same time.
"I'm expecting really good performances and really good acting and maybe some jokes and something really intense” -Kiasa, Oakland Military Institute
As the lights dimmed for the first scene of Eclipsed, The Girl, the play’s main character who is herself fifteen years old, lets us in on her dreams of being a doctor or a constitutional lawyer. Before the show we found out what some of these students had planned for their own lives. Trinity, a beautiful and spirited young African American student from Raoul Wallenberg High, said she wanted to be a lawyer “because I like to argue.” Laughing, we told her that being a trial lawyer was itself rather a theatrical vocation. “Yes,” she said. “That’s why I want to see this play today. I’m excited.” Her friend, Lebanese American Ahya, who was wearing both a hijab and a diamond stud in her pierced nose, said she wanted to be in the medical field. Elvin, the handsome Asian boy at their side, told us he planned to work in the stock market.
Kate, another Wallenberg student whose own hijab sparkled with embedded stones that glistened much like her braces did when she smiled at us, said she wanted to be an actress and was also excited to be seeing her first play. “I am expecting something that I wouldn’t see on TV,” she said. “More body language. And expressions. And they’re going to be really loud for us to understand them. I go to Barbizon School and take acting classes. It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of people on a stage. But if I’m not a an actress, I’ll just be a lawyer. Because my mom wants me to be a lawyer and I’m like: why not.” Saron, whose parents are from Eritrea, said she was interested in seeing Eclipsed so she could “learn about the stuff we will know about when we get older in our lives.” And when she gets older what does she want to be? “A doctor or a soccer player,” she said with a purposeful matter-of-factness. Their buddy Montana, standing next to them, told us she too was elated to be at the Curran for the matinee. “I expect to see something I’ve never seen before!” she exclaimed. “And I’ve seen a lot.” We were curious. Who was this Wallenberg person for whom their school was named. “He was a man,” said Montana. “That’s all I know and that’s all you really need to know yourself: he was a man. That kind of sums it all up: a man.”
“I am expecting something that I wouldn’t see on TV.” -Kate, Wallenberg High
One man we ran into before the matinee that first day was Donn Harris, who has taken over San Francisco School for the Arts after running the Oakland School for the Arts for several years. “Most of these students, no, have never been to a theatre before,” he confirmed for us. “Many of these students are from schools that don’t have strong arts programs yet because we are building them up. They will have an experience here today - especially with this play - that will be phenomenal. I think this is going to make them love theatre and inspire them to come back. That’s what we want. They are about to discover that live theatre is a different kind of experience and they’re going to get into it.”
During intermission that first day we found Montana and Kate again and Donn was right. They really were getting into it. We asked them what their favorite part of Act One of Eclipsed had been. “I liked when The Girl said no one was going to mess with her anymore when she got her gun,” said Montana. “Me?” Kate asked quietly, telling us she couldn’t even close her eyes during the performance because she was so transfixed and so moved by it. “I liked it anytime Wife #1 would laugh.”
The next day, we talked to some of those twelve and thirteen-year-old students from Oakland Military Institute who were patiently waiting outside the Curran to be led to their seats. We asked Elizabeth why she had joined the Military Institute. “I wanted to be college-ready when I get to college,” she said. “My favorite subject is English and currently I want to be a news reporter when I grow up.” Her friend River said she’d enrolled at the Institute to “seek new discipline and strive for academics. I really like history. I want to be a surgeon.”
Their fellow student Alvaro told us he wants to be an astronaut. Kiasia told us that she was expecting “really good performances and really good acting and maybe some jokes and something really intense” and said wants to be a nurse. Erandy claimed she was going to join the Air Force “and then I want to be a special effects make-up artist.” Karina, who had been listening to all these conversations, chimed in,“I was thinking about being a teacher but I think I might be a surgeon because they get hell’a’green.” Hell’agreen? “Money, man. They get hell’a’money.”
Their friend Yazmine joined in everyone’s laughter at Karina’s honesty. Yazmine, in fact, seemed to be a bit of a ringleader so we asked her what her expectations were once she entered the Curran. “I’m expecting fancy everything,” she said. “Fancy seats. Fancy clothes.” She paused - yes, theatrically - before delivering her last line. “And fancy toilet paper,” she said, making her friends laugh even more and priming them to be an audience that was not just hers.