Shakespeare in Watts

As a sophomore at George Washington Prep, Javier Gutierrez flirted with gangs, never contemplated going to college and rarely ventured outside of his West Athens neighborhood. But then he met the Bard.

Cast as the lead in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, Javier became so attached to the works of William Shakespeare that he began reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then came Twelfth Night, followed by Hamlet and now Javier sees the 17th Century Prince of Denmark as something of an alter ego.

Shakespeare, it turns out, has a lot to teach. Being in a play, learning to read Old English verse and seeing the human connection in literature has inspired Javier to focus on school, enroll in college and, as he puts it, understand that “your limitation is the universe.”

“At first I thought he was some old British guy who didn’t know what he was talking about. I couldn’t understand him,” he recalled. “But now I know Shakespeare is so awesome. He is everywhere inside my life. I love him.”

This and other life changing experiences brought by the intersection of urban students with Shakespeare, was captured in the documentary Shakespeare in Watts, which will premiere at the Pan African Film Festival February 11 and 17. The documentary, directed by the late, award-winning filmmaker Mel Stuart, shows the journey taken by a small band of students at Washington Prep, as they learned 16th century English and are guided through the process by their tough yet erudite drama teacher, Dr. Melanie Andrews, their nurturing den parents and producers Paul Heller and Katy Haber and the tireless troupe of Los Angeles-based British actors and actresses who coached and mentored them along the way.

“If it wasn’t for this experience I would probably be in the military right now,” said Javier, who has been accepted to Cal State Los Angeles.

At first Shakespeare was not an easy sell. The students were not only unfamiliar with his plays, but the archaic patterns and phrases of Elizabethan English were baffling.

“They had never heard of Shakespeare,” said Andrews. “It was like learning Egyptian for them; it was a whole other language.”

Producers Haber and Heller, who founded the program as co-chairs of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Los Angeles Education and Outreach Committee, decided it would be great to bring classic theater to high schools. It began in 2005 with BAFTA LA’s Inner City Screening Program at Helen Keller Park in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and the South County Community Services Agency.

Eventually, the program moved to Washington Prep High School, with a screening of Why Shakespeare, the Lawrence Bridges documentary short that discusses how learning about Shakespeare and performing live theatre changes lives. Then the program evolved from a one day acting workshop with BAFTA LA actors coaching Washington Prep students reading scenes from Romeo and Juliet, to a full production of the romantic tragedy.

Since 2011, two public performances, funded by BAFTA LA, in collaboration with Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, have been staged in Ladera Park.

“Everybody was going into unchartered territory,” said Haber. “But the experience has been life changing for the students and also for the mentors. It was an experience that changed them forever.”

The mentors learned the hard reality of living in an area with gang activity when one of the boys auditioning for a part was killed in a drive – by shooting. Another student, cast to play Juliet’s loquacious nurse, broke down in rehearsal, grieving the death of a loved one. As the students absorbed Shakespeare, they learned that his themes of love and loss, tragedy and betrayal, loyalty and courage are timeless. They also saw that life beyond their neighborhood was possible.

Wanting to reach out to more schools, Heller, Haber and the original mentors founded The Inner City Shakespeare Project to bring the plays and works of the Bard to four high schools, including Washington Prep and Los Angeles High School with the cooperation of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Department of Parks and Recreation, which helped build the sets and create the outdoor space, will continue as a partner with the Inner City Shakespeare Project.

“Arts education gives you good diction, good posture and the ability to communicate in this world,” said Andrews, who now serves as the artistic director of the Inner City Shakespeare Project. “People of color are only 25 percent of this country. So if you want to stay in the inner city, then that is fine but if you want to go beyond that, you have to be aware of other things.”

The group is now on to their next, independently funded production of Twelfth Night at Washington Prep and L.A. High Schools with performances scheduled for May and July.

“This experience has played a larger role in my life than I could have imagined,” said Janelee Rodriguez, 17, who played Juliet and is now hoping to attend USC or UCLA. “It was amazing.”

As she recited the lines for her forlorn love, “Romeo, Romeo wherefore art though Romeo,” Janelee could not help but smile. “I always wanted to be an actress. This is a dream come true.”

Click here for more information about “Shakespeare in Watts” and the Pan African Film Festival.

RAVE Cinemas
Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza
Screening Times:
Mon, Feb 11 – 1:30p
Sun, Feb 17 – 3:15p