Friends School of Atlanta seventh and eighth grade students attended the City Springs Theater Company’s production of In the Heights on Thursday, October 27. The musical inspired students and teachers to engage in rich discussions about race, ethnicity, and social class in the United States and about the importance of representation in the arts.
The City Springs Theater website describes In the Heights as telling, “the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams, and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind” (https://www.cityspringstheatre.com/shows/upcoming/). Originally performed in 2005, the musical remains relevant in its portrayal of contemporary social problems, such as racism and the struggles of working-class people of color. It also highlights the power of community, family, dreams, and resilience in the face of challenges.
FSA faculty and staff worked hard to ensure that this field trip was a well-executed cultural experience and learning opportunity for all involved. Before attending the musical, faculty researched the casting choices. Yvonne Rodriguez, middle school language arts and Latin teacher and middle school librarian, said, “I said, ‘Wait; tell me what the cast looks like.’ And then Chris [director of arts] took over from there and contacted the people in charge and got confirmation that they weren’t going to whitewash characters.” Chris Willoughby, director of arts, described the importance of representation in casting, saying, “One of the things that we wanted to make sure before we took our kids was that the Latinx [and] Hispanic characters were going to be played by Latinx, Hispanic people. Black characters were played by Black people…We asked, and they said they were going to be, and they sure were. It was incredible because representation really does matter. It would have been really troubling from a representational point if it had been whitewashed.” Once faculty and staff were confident that the casting choices accurately reflected the ethnicities of the characters, tickets were purchased.
In anticipation of the event, Yvonne and I led a class discussion for 7th and 8th grade students about the importance of representation in film and theatre and how In the Heights relates to broader societal conversations around racism and colorism. Yvonne asked students to journal about a piece of media that represents a racial or ethnic minority group well and not just as side characters or comic relief. After journaling, students shared their examples and then transitioned into discussing representation within In the Heights. While acknowledging the importance of In the Heights and its representation of Latinx identity, Yvonne and I also discussed criticism the film received. Specifically, some felt the movie production of In the Heights did not include sufficient representation of Washington Heights’ Afro-Latinx community, especially darker-skinned Afro-Latinx residents. This led to a discussion of colorism. When reflecting on the educational value of the class discussion, Charleigh, an eighth grade student, said: “I learned what colorism was…They compared people’s, the color of their skin and if you were darker than a brown paper bag you couldn’t do certain things…People mostly learn about racism and not colorism, and colorism I feel like is probably a big part to racism.” Lastly, Yvonne prepared students for a scene in the musical production (which was not in the film adaptation) where Kevin Rosario, a Puerto Rican man, opposed his daughter Nina’s relationship with Benny, an African-American man. This led to a conversation about antiblackness.
On Thursday morning, well-prepared and excited students loaded into cars with parent volunteers and headed toward the theater. Upon arrival, students and faculty were impressed by the venue and set. Jan Burnett, middle school language arts teacher, said, “Before the characters ever came on stage, I was just in awe of the setting and the venue which was a really nice place to be able to take them and for them to experience that.” Yindi, an eighth grade student, was similarly impressed by the set, saying: “I liked the set design and the background, how they were able to use the lights to make it look like it was sunset and sunrise and nighttime.”
Attendees were equally impressed by the performance itself. Sara Perez, exploratory teacher and administrative staff member, said: “I thought it was great. I really enjoyed watching people try and struggle with being outside of a place that felt like home and trying to figure that out.” Chris said, “The play itself was so well done…The actors and actresses were professionals. The orchestra was really amazing.” Stella, an eighth grade student, echoed her teachers’ sentiments, saying, “I thought the execution was just brilliant and the performers were all incredible.”
The next week, Yvonne and I led a follow-up conversation with students. Students analyzed lyrics from the musical’s opening number, looking for messages about social class. We also talked more about interracial dating in relation to the above-mentioned scene involving Nina, Benny, and Kevin. Lastly, we asked students to reflect on how their own experiences are similar to and/or different from the experiences they saw portrayed onstage.
In addition to this group discussion, some students and faculty reflected on the musical in individual interviews with me. I was particularly interested in what windows and mirrors the play provided for students and teachers. A play can be a window if it provides a glimpse into another’s experiences that are different from one’s own. A play can be a mirror if it allows individuals to see themselves and their own experiences reflected back to them.
For many students, the play served as a window, allowing them to see what life was like for people who differ from them in terms of race, ethnicity, and/or social class. For instance, Eli, a seventh grade student, said: “It’s a really interesting play and also it gives you a lot of information, sort of like a peek into life as like a Latino in the Heights… The way that everybody on the streets knew each other at all the shops and were together, that’s not really a thing I’ve ever really seen. I know my neighbors on either side of me and a couple people who live around me, but that’s about it.” While Eli reflected on how the play was a window into a different ethnic and cultural experience, other students talked about the play as a window into class struggle. Stella said: “I think it’s really important to get a glimpse into how other people’s lives are going…Especially at The Friends School you may not know what it’s like to really be struggling to pay the bills and struggling to… know where your next meal is going to come from. I think that’s why it’s really important to watch this performance.” Yindi described how theatrical windows into others’ experiences can help break negative stereotypes about working-class and poor people of color. She said, “Sometimes students might get the wrong idea of places where people live in that way… like [places that are] not necessarily very rich with a lot of White people. And sometimes people get the wrong idea or they make assumptions…that maybe those people…deserve that or that none of them are intelligent or compassionate, or they might put themselves on a higher ranking than them…It is a musical that is trying to break stereotypes.”
When asked what they hoped students took from this experience, some teachers talked about the importance of windows for exposing students to new perspectives and broadening their worldview. For instance, Kenny, middle school math teacher and director of athletics, said, “This might be the only time they can see a majority minority cast… I was like man this is not your culture but you’re about to appreciate this…Maybe this play isn’t for you, it’s not about you, but, you know what? You’re going to appreciate this…You’re going to sit here and enjoy something that people are putting on for their people, but they want you to take part. And I just felt like they may never see that again.” When asked why it’s important for White children to see a majority minority cast and be exposed to a culture that’s not their own, he said, “I think it’s important because you just gotta have different perspectives. I feel like a lot of times the default experiences they have is just catered to what they know or what their parents know…I think everyone should have a chance to be the minority in the room every once in a while…It’s just good to see other people who don’t look like you doing excellent things.”
While windows are important, so are mirrors. Some students, faculty, and staff discussed how they saw their own identities and experiences reflected in the play and the value of seeing that reflection. Yvonne said, “It’s kind of nice to finally be able to point to something and say, ‘see that’s me.’ Because [the students have] not really had that, you know? …There’s not a lot of media that I can point to and say oh yeah I do this all the time with my family, and now I can reference something, which is nice.” When asked where she saw her experiences reflected in the play, Yvonne talked about the importance of family and community. She also talked about language and food. Other teachers talked about relating to struggles of ethnic and/or national belonging. Sara said, “I felt really seen by [the play] in a way that I didn’t expect… I think [Nina] going to college and not understanding who she was there and having to come home to figure that out resonated with me in ways that are interesting. It’s not a parallel story, but going someplace that made you re-identify with who you were before or your culture is interesting… I have always lived in this place where I’m either not White enough or not Latina enough, so figuring out what that is in different spaces or like how to meld to whatever the majority perception of myself is, and it seems like that is a thing that [Nina] was trying to figure out.” Kenny talked about relating to the story of immigration and belonging. He said, “Usnavi talked about going back home and then not realizing that like he is home. There are times when I’ve felt that way…I’m a [second-generation] immigrant. My mother is from Jamaica. And like everybody’s always like, ‘you’ve got to have pride in where you’re from.’ I’ve always felt like, you know, where do I actually belong? …I also understand the grappling of like where your family’s from, where you originated from, wanting to go back there.”
Some students also found mirrors in the play. Eustacia, a seventh grade student, said: “I could really relate to the girl who went to college and her not wanting to let her family, community and friends down. My family really wants me to go to college and have a good life. That’s like the main reason why we came to America.” Gabriela, an eighth grade student, said, “I really, really connect to In the Heights. So much is similar to my life…This is my comfort movie because it feels familiar.”
When asked what they hoped students took from the play, some teachers talked about the importance of mirrors, the importance of all children in the FSA community having opportunities to see people like them reflected in the arts. Yvonne said, “We have multiple students this year… who are at least partially Latinx and they have that [ability to see themselves in the play], too… We’re not doing the things we say [we do] if we don’t expose people to all the stuff and make sure that everybody feels included.” Similarly, Sara said, “It was very cool to see a predominantly minority cast…to see them [the students], a lot of them represented in that, that there’s space for stories like that.”
Overall, teachers hoped students learned from the experience and took something meaningful away with them when they left the theater. Jan discussed the educational value of the experience, saying, “Learning in the classroom of course is valuable, but going outside of the confines of the classroom and learning in other places is always of tremendous value… [It’s important] to learn how to learn in those kinds of settings, to realize that it’s an opportunity to be intentional about what you’re learning, not just be entertained, which is of value in and of itself. But, the learning beyond that of…what the play was showing the characters going through and the struggles…and being able to relate it to the real world, to think about how realistic, how well it portrayed those struggles… To experience something beyond the more programmed learning in the classroom I think is so valuable.” Kenny discussed the value of the conversations following the play. He said, “As a teacher I realize more and more that kids don’t talk to that many adults outside of their parents. So, they usually get their knowledge on topics from their friends who are older, maybe TV, but they don’t really get to ask really important questions…There’s a lot of knowledge that can be gained from kids just talking with people besides their parents about topics that matter.”
While the play is over and students are back to their regularly scheduled classes, it is my hope that the learning will continue, that parents and teachers will continue to engage in these conversations about representation, about Latinx identity, about Blackness, about class, and race and space because these conversations matter.
Written by Kristen Clayton, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.