Every year in late June, one of the more beautiful sights in Buffalo materializes on a sloping plot of land near the edge of Delaware Park.
Some 2,000 people carry picnic spreads, red wine and lawn chairs, some of them lingering for a minute in the park’s blooming rose garden, to attend a performance of Shakespeare in Delaware Park. The sight of all those people sprawled out at dusk, eagerly awaiting the rhymed couplets and clever turns of phrase of a poet who shuffled off 400 years ago is at once comforting and awe-inspiring.
In addition to making a very pretty Instagram, it shows that Shakespeare is alive and well and thriving in Buffalo. But it’s not nearly the only place the Bard lives and breathes. He’s also hard at work, among other places, in the less idyllic surroundings of Buffalo’s West Side.
There, a group of nearly 30 Buffalo Public School students has been hard at work on a production of “The Tempest,” which opened Friday in Ujima’s TheatreLoft and runs through Monday. The show is the fifth annual production of “Shakespeare Comes to (716),” a program of the West Side-based Peace of the City Ministries.
The program was designed to give students from backgrounds and neighborhoods where opportunities for self-expression are limited a chance to discover a piece of themselves in Shakespeare’s words. In a performance during Thursday night’s “Shakespearean Idol” fundraiser in the Buffalo History Museum, the students delivered two scenes from the show and got a rousing reaction from the crowd.
The program has attracted students like Michael Morel, a graduate of the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts who said that his three years of experience learning and speaking Shakespeare’s words have helped him to discover his own confidence.
“I had low self-esteem before the first show,” Morel recalled of his appearance three summers ago in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which the costume for his character, the fairy king Oberon, was little more than a pair of shorts and some body paint. “It was a learning experience,” he deadpanned, adding that the experience helped to bring him out of his shell.
Lakeya Murray, a BAVPA sophomore appearing in “The Tempest” who is also in her third year, echoed Morel’s feelings about the effect of Shakespeare on her confidence. She said her castmates and her director, Megan McClain Kwacz, were more than just teachers and fellow students.
“They usually call it a ‘program.’ But to us it’s not a program. We’re all like family,” she said. “Regardless of where we come from, they take us in with open arms.”
And while the young Shakespeareans might not openly talk about it, where they come from sometimes isn’t all that pretty. Many of the students have difficult family situations and, like many on Buffalo’s poverty-stricken West and East sides, their lives intersect far too often with violence.
For Peace of the City Executive Director Diann Takens-Cerbone, the Shakespeare project is about opening new worlds and ideas to young people with precious few opportunities to succeed and a life path that can sometimes seem preprogrammed for failure.
“I think these kids learn to take on roles different from what’s been offered to them by the marginalized place in society that they came into,” Takens-Cerbone said. “I think these kids try on a role, they feel the power and the breadth of that role, and then they go home. I actually think – this chokes me up thinking about it – I think the lights go on at home.”
Most of us have probably had that experience, in high school or later. When we read a work of literature, be it “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Great Gatsby,” we assume it into our daily lives. At some unexpected point, something about the story comes into a perfect rhythm with our lives. Where that literature overlaps with our lives, we come to understand both the story and ourselves more deeply. That is the magic of great drama and literature. And for these kids and countless others, it can actually be a matter of life or death.
Last year’s Peace of the City production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which takes on the he-said, she-said conflicts that often erupt into urban violence, Takens-Cerbone said, is a perfect case in point.
To help her students understand the gist of “Much Ado,” she invited the Rev. Jeff Carter of Buffalo, a former chaplain at Attica Correctional Facility, to speak about the play’s echoes in inner-city life.
“I asked him, ‘How many of the men at Attica Prison over your 25 years there were there because of he-said, she-said?’ And he estimated about 70 to 75 were in prison based on acts of violence that were he-said, she-said. So when you do ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ which is exactly the point, you see the connection.”
And so do the young actors.
“You can’t overestimate the impact of the message that is sent to them in every way shape or form, that your future is limited,” Takens-Cerbone said. “And Shakespeare is that Cadillac that says: You know what? You can go a few more places.”