Art stays imitating life!
Success Academy Bronx 2 teacher Sentell Harper has created the spoken-word production entitled Alternative Names for Black Boys featuring boys in his fourth grade class as performers, CNN reports.During the production, six black boys wearing gray hoodies line up and ask the poignant question, “Do you see me?” and repeat it several times.
With hoods on their heads, they recite the names of black youth and men killed in police brutality incidents, “Freddie … Michael … Philando … Tamir,” they say. “Eric … Alton … Trayvon … Jordan.”
“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today we’re gonna talk about race,'” Harper said.“And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”Harper, who is a black actor and playwright, was inspired by the Danez Smith poem “Alternative Names for Black Boys," and created the five-part performance of the same name.
Besides the recitation of names, Harper's production includes Tupac Shakur’s famous poem, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?,” snippets from Langston Hughes’ “Popular Tree” and a monologue addressing future issues of young black boys.
“With the killings of black men and boys being in the media, it was really just scary in my world,” Harper said. “I thought about the boys I was teaching … society won’t see them like I see them. Society will only see them as black men.”
The production has clearly had a significant impact on the young boys, who unfortunately have to navigate a world where the police see them as a target. “When I do this piece, I’m, like, proving everybody wrong, that I could get an education, and I could go somewhere in my life,” performer Tysean Wheeler said.
“We want to prove people wrong about what black men and boys can do, because we might be the future men [that] would [or] could get shot or killed,” another performer Gregory Hannah, added.Harper did initially worry about the subject being too heavy for such young boys, but has experienced an “amazing” response, notably from the performers’ fathers. “I feel like the sons are speaking the words that the fathers may not say or may not have the words to say,” Harper said.
The production has since expanded with the latest cast being offered invitations to perform at theater conferences and Carnegie Hall. The success of the piece has Harper working on a comparable piece for girls of color.“I’m always thinking about what I can discuss with my scholars, be it race, be it beauty norms, be it any kind of socially relevant topics,” Harper said. “I’m trying to keep one foot in front of the other by making and creating pieces that help them with those discussions.”