As soon as Wendell Pierce made his entrance at this week's Broke-ologymatinee, the teenage boy behind me loudly whispered, "It's him! The dude from 'The Wire'!"
Normally, that would be my cue to turn around and shush the offender. (As regular theatergoers know, it's best to establish a zone of quiet before things get out of hand.) But this was a student matinee, sponsored by LCT's Education Department, and I like going to these performances precisely because they are lively. If you can't be engaged by how thoroughly these students are engaged, then you're in the wrong place.
I love that these students whisper things that relate to the play. There can be costume assessments ("That green dress is fierce"), plot points ("Trust me, he's going down"), or biographical connections ("My brother slurps his coffee just like that guy").
And at a post-show talkback, the students show just how closely they've been paying attention. At yesterday's session, attended by kids from Richard R. Green HS of Teaching, Pace High School, and City-As-School Manhattan (students from MLK Jr. HS of Law, Advocacy & Community Justice and Manhattan Center for Science & Math had also attended the performance), one girl asked the actors, "Is it easy to become your character?" "You try to bring yourself to the role," replied Francois Battiste, who plays Ennis, "using as much stuff from your own life as works."
"Can you be more specific about the autobiographical aspect?" asked another student of the panel, which in addition to the four actors included director Thomas Kail, just back from launching the tour of the hit Broadway musicalIn The Heights. Pierce replied: "I asked the play's scenic designer [Donyale Werle], to put a picture frame on the table next to my reading chair. I have a photograph in there of my own father, who's 85 this year. That helps me when I sit in that part of the stage."
Some questions suggested that there were students in the house who'd come not just to increase their pleasure in Nathan Louis Jackson's dialogue (the kids have in-school sessions before attending to prepare them for the experience) but to glean professional advice. "Where did you go to college?" one boy asked, "and how can I get in?" "I started at Seton Hall, in New Jersey," replied Crystal A. Dickinson, "but I didn't start there with the thought of becoming an actor. That came later."
Another student wondered: "How do you all keep from breaking character when you're onstage?" Battiste replied: "You just don't." Pierce added, "It can be a little bit more of a challenge on a day like today, when we have an audience as responsive as you. You were a very good audience, but don't think we don't hear what you're whispering when we're up here on stage. We do."
"Uh oh," whispered that 'Wire' fan behind me.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.