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Theatre program at SGHS teaches tolerance

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"I don't want to go out with you," said sophomore Tamara Lewin. "You're white, I'm black, what would people say?"

By Courtney Dentch

"Did you think about what I asked you?" asked Springfield Gardens High School junior Antonio McLean.

"I don't want to go out with you," said sophomore Tamara Lewin. "You're white, I'm black, what would people say?"

No, this exchange was not overheard between classes in the halls of the high school, at 143-10 Springfield Blvd. It was part of a dialogue on prejudice, performed last week by students in the Page to Stage program, a cooperative project between the school and the Roundabout Theatre Company, based in Manhattan.

McLean and Lewin were acting out a short script written by another student as an example of prejudice. The assignment is threefold - to highlight issues of hatred, improve the students' writing skills, and make them comfortable speaking before an audience, said Sam Schimerman, one of the school's two teachers involved with the program.

Now in its second year at Springfield Gardens High School, the program, a teaching residency where staff from Roundabout join the class about once a week, is aimed at promoting reading and writing through drama, said Renee Flemings, a curriculum adviser with the company.

"We look at building literacy skills through theater," she said. "Parents tell me they're preparing their monologues at the dinner table."

The class pairs movies and plays with assignments designed to focus on certain elements. In the case of the dialogue performed by McLean and Lewin, prejudice, and more specifically homophobia, was the theme, and excerpts from the HBO film "And the Band Played On," chronicling the discovery of AIDS highlighted that, Schimerman said. Students have also watched "On the Waterfront," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Color Purple," and other movies as an introduction to assignments, he said.

Each project includes a writing element, such as a dialogue, monologue, or essay, to strengthen the students' literacy skills, said Courtney Boddie, Roundabout's teaching artist.

"It takes a little while for students to get comfortable," Boddie said. "Many of them were a little apprehensive about writing, but they've taken to it and come up with some pretty good stuff."

And in performing their work, students become more at ease speaking in public, said English teacher Nazreen Cho-Sam.

"In students who are very shy, it brings out their ability to perform and express themselves in front of others," she said.

Freshman Lawrence Peters, 15, likes the class for both aspects, he said.

"It's hot because I like to act and come up with ideas that are a part of me," Peters said.

The class also gets to visit the Roundabout Theatre Company in the theater district to see plays, such as "Master Harold and the Boys," starring Danny Glover, and "Joe Egg," the story of a child with multiple handicaps, said Gloria Trentham, assistant principal for Instructional Support Services.

"That was a heavy thing to see, especially for high school students," she said of the play. "They were sympathetic. They discussed what they would do if they were the parents."

And for many of the southeast Queens students, the shows were their first taste of the Great White Way, Flemings said.

"For the majority of the kids, they've never been on Broadway before, so they have fun," she said. "It exposes the children to the world."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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