2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
by Shannon Reed
2:20 in the afternoon was the sweet spot between my weary triumph at successfully concluding another day of teaching high school playwriting, and the moment in which I realized I’d have to do it again the next day. By 2:20, the sun was at just the right position to stream through the dirty 2nd floor windows into my tiny classroom, tucked into a corner of the huge NYCDOE building on Ralph Avenue in Canarsie. Especially in the winter months, the diffused sunlight added to the mood of gentle dissolution that had often settled on 11A and me by then, twenty-three minutes from the end of the school day.
At this particular 2:20, on a quiet, gray day in early March, the students of 11A were scattered in small groups around the room. We’d begun our final project the week before, when each student had set aside their previous playwriting work and began to create a new character, a Brooklynite of any age, gender, race, style, or creed, with the only stipulation that there be a means to connect this character to the entirely imaginary location in South Brooklyn that we would create as the setting for the play we were writing together.
I wasn’t sure if 11A would be able to do it. Despite their easy going façade, the class was a fractured mess of personalities, hailing from all over Brooklyn, making the borough just about the only thing we all had in common. Trying to organize them into groups was a frustrating experience, revealing deep schisms and fractured relationships of the kind I could only sense, not predict. If this group could learn to work together, it would be a triumph, for them and for me.
It had already been a difficult year for all of us, mostly because of the violent, gang-related death of one of their classmates, M., whose empty desk reminded us daily of the horror that could strike at any moment. One girl from 11A had been pulled from the school by her mother and sent to live in Atlanta. Her absence made things worse, enabling the feeling that Brooklyn was a place to get out of. Even kids who found school acceptable were reeling, and those who didn’t like to be there in the first place were quietly miserable, trudging along Canarsie’s slushy streets, snapping at each other out of fear, fatigue and restlessness.
I sensed that a big project might be a way forward, out of the morass they were struggling in. We could use the mutual good will that would arise if we were able to pull it off, and it would be wonderful if the students could feel proud of something they created. Whether they would be successful or not, I couldn’t say. The odds weren’t in their favor, but when had they ever been? I decided to believe that they could do it.
A few weeks earlier, I had laid out the project. They’d agreed, tentatively, that writing a play was something they’d like to do. I told them that choosing a setting was the first task, that it had to be someplace where all of their characters might interact. I suggested that a public high school might work well.
“There’s nothing more multi-cultural than a big public high school,” I said. “Think about it – here, Brooklyn Tech, Erasamus, Bushwick, Midwood…”
“Not a school,” Peterson said quickly. Everyone immediately nodded in agreement, tired of school in reality, less than eager to create one. The writer’s adage, “write what you know” had no pull with this crowd. I leaned against my desk, waiting, my one idea dismissed.
“How about, like, Japan?” suggested Desmond, who loved manga. No one said no. I opined that writing about Japan would require a great deal of research, which was ok by me, but we’d have to go to the library – and the idea was dropped before I finished the sentence.
“In Brooklyn,” someone said.
“Yeah, our Brooklyn,” Tyra agreed.
“What’s ‘our Brooklyn’?” I asked.
Tyra said, “Not your Brooklyn, Ms. Reed, but you know, our Brooklyn.”
11A was comprised almost entirely of African- or Carribbean-American teenagers, and the remaining few were Latino. My pale Irish-German skin glowed out of group photos we took on field trips, picking up the intense flash. “Caspar,” one student had observed, not unkindly. My Brooklyn was Park Slope; theirs wasn’t. We all knew it.
“A projects,” suggested Ann for a setting.
“I don’t live in the projects, girl,” said her best friend, Brittny.
“I don’t either,” Ann retorted, “But that’s a place where everyone is.”
“Apartment building,” Peterson said. After a moment of thought, everyone agreed, heads nodding slowly around the room. Peterson leaned back in his chair with the satisfied expression of a man who’s spoken the truth. We would set the play in an apartment building.
Another day of discussion gave us the name 320 Jones Plaza for the complex, although I set aside my teacher-ly obligation towards fairness to advocate for El Diablo Townhouses (Yadiel’s suggestion) instead. I was outvoted, told by Keira that El Diablo was “too silly for a real play.”
At the end of that day, as the class filed out, I heard Moise say to Yadiel, “Yo, 320 Jones Plaza is my crib, boy,” and I smiled at the empty classroom. They were buying in. A world was being formed.
Next, their task was to take the original characters they had created and place them in relationship with each other. A few days before, I had distributed both a series of questions about character – “What does your character fear?” “How does your character feel about his mother?” – as well as blank paper dolls and markers. The paper dolls were a hit, and 11A labored to make their characters resemble what they pictured. Gaby, a gifted artist, agreeably drew face after face, confiding, “I’m getting better at noses,” when I thanked her for her efforts.
Eventually, we sat in a circle of chairs in the center of the classroom, our desks pushed to the side. Each student presented his character, along with three salient facts about him or her.
Shian: “I drew her stupid, but she ain’t stupid. Her name’s Mika, and she’s a nurse. She works over at Methodist Hospital, the one in the rich neighborhood.”
“Park Slope,” I said, and Shian nodded. “Where you live, Ms. Reed,” Kiara noted.
Shian finished up: “She has a baby, Jada. Ok?”
A couple nods, a couple shrugs. Yeah, ok.
Moise was next: “So this is Clarence. His Pops is in jail. He plays ball over on the court on Flatlands. He wants to go to college, maybe Brooklyn College, so he doesn’t have to give up his job at McDonald’s.” We looked at the tough-looking paper doll, a scowl wrinkling its face.
“My character plays ball, too,” Ray said territorially.
I said it was ok, that the characters didn’t need to be entirely unique. Maybe Clarence and Ray’s character could hang out on the basketball court.
Ray asked, “Does 320 Jones Plaza have a basketball court?”
“Why not?” said Tyra. “It does now.”
Everyone nodded. Sure, why not? Unless I put a stop to it – like when Deja wanted to put a nightclub and a bowling alley in the building – the class could make 320 Jones Plaza hold anything we liked. The power of creation, of ownership, was thrilling. They were learning what writers have realized since one first put pencil to paper: Having so little in real life could be somewhat assuaged by a fertile imagination.
Our apartment complex grew – a basketball court, a gym, a nail salon on the first floor. A police station down the street, keeping an eye on everyone, “like they’re supposed to,” Tyra observed. I waited for the mention of M, of gangs, of violence between members of the same community, but none came.
And, now, on that sunny day in March, we were building relationships. No one’s an island, I pointed out. All of these characters had to be connected to each other, in some way.
“Like, a dating show?” Anthony asked.
“No, no,” I said, “Not all, romantic, sexual relationships. What other kind of relationships are there? I mean, you guys live in Brooklyn. Who do you interact with each day?”
We made a list: parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, step siblings, half siblings. Who else? Parole officers, teachers, coaches. Pastors. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Your mom’s best friend. Who else? The guy at the bodega. The bus driver on the B6. The security officer downstairs. The woman at the subway turnstiles. Who else? The kid who lends you a pencil every day. The old lady who watches you leave for school out her window. Who else? Gang members? No one said it. I wondered if I was the only one thinking it.
“Your mom’s best friend’s boss’s dogsitter,” Desmond said. Sure, why not?
“Ok, it’s time to talk to your co-writers and figure out what’s going to happen in your scenes. Remember, you can’t bend the script to fit your character, the way you might be able to if you were writing on your own. In this case, genre and setting dictate our plot.”
“Ok,” said Peterson, “But in this Brooklyn, no one gets killed.”
There was silence in the classroom, a long moment. Out on Flatlands Avenue, a car alarm starting whooping. I looked around the class, and saw a lot of people suddenly very interested in their hands or the desk.
“Ok, Peterson,” I said. “So, let’s try to figure out how the characters in your scene are related. You need to talk to your co-writers.”
Conversations between these students were never quiet, but these were unusually focused. Each playwright began making connections by turning to friends first. Popular Tyra had a flotilla of girls around her. “We’re all friends,” she said by way of greeting, when I went over to check on them, “and we all have problems. Because we listened to you, Ms. Reed, and –“ here her voice rose to emphasize, “We all have a big problem.”
They sure did. One character wanted to come out of the closet, another was being physically abused by her dad, and yet another was having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend who was also the father of her baby. It was a little overwhelming. I turned to monitor another group, who had just decided that one of their characters worked at Junior’s. “But not the Times Square Junior’s,” Andrew said. “The real Junior’s. On Dekalb, you know.”
“Of course,” I said.
Then, to my left, I noticed that Kendra had joined Tyra’s group. I hid my shock. Kendra, a decided “good girl,” never talked to Tyra, a young woman who wrote an entire report on the strip club industry for future careers class. They really disliked each other. I inched closer, fascinated but not wanting to interrupt them and break the spell. Danay sat nearby, listening to them, and looked over her shoulder to inform me, “They’re sisters.”
“Oh?” I asked.
Danay turned back to begrudgingly fill me in a little bit more: “So, Tyra is Jasmine, and Jasmine is sisters with Kendra’s character who – Kendra! Who’s your character?”
Kendra looked over at me, a shy, slightly baffled smile on her face, and said, “Her name is Jolene.”
I nodded, and said, “Well, which one is the older sister?”
Kendra and Tyra turned back to each other, unsure. Danay went back to writing, her work done.
I stepped away quietly, like a mother who’s nearly awoken her sleeping child from a wonderful dream.
By 2:40 in the afternoon, I collected sheets of paper from each group, explaining their connections. The next day, we found more connections between each group – Tristan and Desmond’s video game addicts would live directly above Rakim’s car mechanic, for example. And then we mapped it all out on giant sheets of paper, which I carefully taped around the room, maps for what we were about to create. “Our Brooklyn” someone had scrawled across the top, in big, graffiti-style letters.
And they did it, somehow, an entire script, full of flaws and little moments of beauty that somehow came to life onstage, a triumphant one-night only show at Vital Theatre Company on the Upper West Side. 11A loved being there, cheering on the professional actors from the audience. I particularly delighted in the look of shocked joy that came over each student’s face when someone on stage said words they wrote, the kind of high you can’t buy and won’t forget.
In our discussions about the dramatic arc, the class had decided that something big, and, well, dramatic, needed to happen for the play to wrap up. They decided, against Peterson’s wishes, for the play to culminate in the shooting death of Andrew’s character, Troy, a drug dealer who sacrificed himself to save his ex-girlfriend and their baby. No one mentioned it, but I noticed that Troy’s death made more sense than M.’s had, and was more noble, too.
But what moved me to tears was the very ending of the play, which I had barely paid attention to as we threw it together the day before the director needed the script, my well-planned schedule falling apart in the face of the usual Brooklyn public high school woes: illnesses, unexplained absences, fire drills, school lockdowns, memorial services. I finally typed up the end of the play at 1 in the morning, running on will power, not even reading what I transcribed.
So it was as the play spun out onstage that night that I realized what the ending was: a series of short monologues from nearly every character, each of whom stepped to the lip of the stage to tell the audience how Troy’s death affected them, and how they’d moved on. At the very end, Andrew, playing Troy, stepped forward, and told us he was happier in heaven, which looked just like Brooklyn – the same cement sidewalks, the same blinking stoplights, the horns honking at every hour of the day, a take-out Chinese place on the corner – except that it was safe there. “I don’t have to worry no more,” he said.
When I think back on 320 Jones Plaza now, I remember those afternoons when we created it: my students’ heads bent over their work at the end of the day. Kendra’s shy smile. The last lines, a vision of a perfect Brooklyn.
I know too well that Brooklyn is a place where kids got shot down on the streets, a few weeks before their 18th birthday. But I know, too, that Brooklyn is a place were a group of very different people could work together to in the streaky sun of a sleepy classroom on Ralph Avenue to create a housing complex where everyone knows each other, where all the lives are connected, where one person’s death diminishes them all.
That was our Brooklyn.