Athletes get to hear it. A completed pass or a made basket is rewarded with a burst of applause, a whistle of praise. But most people never hear it for themselves. They can be smart and sensitive and decent. They can be a good child or a respectful student or a loyal friend, but nobody ever claps for them. Sport rules. Athletes command the spotlight of attention leaving everyone else in shadow, and nowhere as much as in high school. Scott Hamilton Kennedy's wonderful documentary, O.T.: Our Town, tells the moving story of a group of contemporary urban teens who come together outside the athletic arena with the dream of a moment in the spotlight for themselves.
The movie will be shown this weekend through next week at Zeitgeist as part of its Film Movement series.
O.T. is set at Dominguez High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, a concrete jungle of gang-bangers and blaring rap music, of bloods and homeboys, and the race riots that scar every school event. Compton is impoverished and dangerous, and the Latino and African-American kids alike call it with piercing irony, "Da Ghettttooooo!" At Dominguez High, as at Everywhere High, sport is IT and basketball is IT squared. Extracurricular activity means basketball and others sports. The school hasn't put on a theatrical production in a quarter century. Then a couple of English teachers, Catherine Borek and Karen Greene, decide to put on a show and give the short kid and the awkward kid and the pudgy kid a chance to shine. The result is Stand and Deliver with makeup and memorized lines.
The get-go is easy enough: some posters announcing an audition. Kids straggle in. The teachers have arranged for an adequate number of copies of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. But otherwise they have no budget. More imposing, they have no performance space. The school has no auditorium, and the basketball coach won't hear of letting something like a play and its required rehearsals go on in his gym. The neophyte thespians are banished to the school cafeteria. They dream of an actual stage, but they run their lines in a space marked out between chairs. Elsewhere in school some kids have heard a rumor about a theatrical production in preparation, but they don't know any details, and they are pretty sure it will be boring.
The cast is a racial blend of black and tan. The Stage Manager is played by pretty, plump Ebony Norwood Brown, the school's stoical teenaged philosopher. Ebony was born to a prostitute who abandoned her; she has been raised by the babysitter with whom she was left. George Gibbs is played by Mexican-American Archy, a sunny young man with bleached hair who nonetheless worries that he will pass through life without leaving the slightest mark. George's future wife, Emily, is played by Armia, a pixie-ish black girl with shy eyes, a quick giggle and a heart-melting smile. Emily's father is played by Chris, a tall round black teen with a somber manner and an obvious if quiet intelligence. Town gossip Mrs. Soames is played by Jackie, a black girl given to broad gestures and breaks of vogueing, all of which are intended to mask a haunting insecurity and a desperate yearning for something she can cling to with pride. The town drunk Simon is played by Jose, a Latino youngster with a wild mop of hair, a pierced tongue and a proclivity for bouts of depression.
Wilder's Our Town is divided into three acts: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death. It is set early in the 20th century in the tiny burg of Grover's Corners, N.H. At first even the kids who audition for the production think that the play has little to do with their lives. But Borek and Greene encourage the kids to personalize the play and interject contemporary references, and gradually the cast members come to see the many ways in which Wilder's observations about human experience offer wisdom for their own circumstances. As the film makes plain, these kids know plenty about love and marriage (about their community's pattern of sexual urgency and cycles of pregnancy and broken homes), and they know far too much about death. At one point with the camera running, we suddenly hear gunshots that seem to come from the next block.
The documentary sustains considerable suspense over whether or not the show will actually come off. These are good kids, but they've never known the discipline it takes to put on a play. They have trouble memorizing their lines. They get sloppy about attending rehearsals. In short, they surrender to their fears of failure, fears of messing up and embarrassing themselves, fears that no matter what they do, no one will come anyway. At first the teachers try to whip them on. At the end they substitute the carrot of unstinting praise. A little platform stage is erected at the last minute. The lights go down. And when they come back up, you'll be among those yelling, "Bravo!"
- Guillermo Echavarria prepares to rehearse for the school play in the Dominguez High School cafeteria in the wonderful documentary O.T.: Our Town, which premieres locally this weekend at Zeitgeist.