Theater-police partnership helps develop teen leaders
They swagger, tease and laugh the way most high school students do. But when Naheem Garcia says, “Hold it,” they listen.
“When I say the next train is coming, you need to be here,” their teacher says in his deep baritone.
As the students start simulating a fight scene and their jostling turns into playful shoves and giggles, Naheem quickly turns the room silent. “Hold. Hold means quiet,” he says. The students settle down.
This isn’t detention. In fact, these 14 students want to be here. They are part of the ensemble cast of “Know the Law,” a play about real issues facing teens today.
The performance is part of a collaboration between the Huntington Theatre Company and Youth and Police in Partnership (YPP), itself a joint effort of the Boston Police Department and Children’s Services of Roxbury. The partnership selects and hires high school students in the Boston area to work in the community in some capacity. The goal is to have these kids act as leaders in improving relations among their peers, their neighborhood and the police department.
Performed in local high schools and community centers, “Know the Law” plays out a range of scenarios, from domestic abuse to drug use. The purpose is to educate kids about the law, clarify what is right and wrong, and eliminate the gray areas.
“I try and think about the fact that they are young and don’t know,” Garcia explains. “The patience comes from trying to remember my own past.”
He says that every year, a performance will elicit a response from an audience member after a show. When feedback fliers are passed out, some students may admit to knowing a friend who had endured a scenario like one depicted during the show, or even having experienced one firsthand.
The play also has a profound impact on the students who are selected to participate. One young man with a particularly strong stage presence admits that being part of YPP transformed him.
“YPP gives you a boost in life. It helps you problem solve. It helps you speak publicly. It gives you confidence, definitely,” Jermaine Hamilton says with a smile.
Hamilton started participating in YPP when he was 14. Before then, he struggled with choices between right and wrong. He had run-ins with the law. He dropped out of school.
“My basketball coach pulled me aside and talked me into the program,” he recalls.
Garcia saw something in Hamilton, and kept him coming back to YPP. The involvement turned the young man’s life around.
“It’s an opportunity. You get paid to learn. It provides you extra insight,” he says. “I refer to it as a second home. There is love, and compassion and support.”
Now 20, Hamilton is a part-time staff member of YPP, as is his sister. He is active in the roundtable discussions that follow performances, and says he is thrilled to see other kids reach out for help.
“You get a feeling of satisfaction,” he says.
Garcia says that’s what has helped him stay motivated. He credits his own past for leading him to where he is today. Growing up he was a performer, dancing with a group called “Home Boys Only.” The popular troupe recruited other teens who wanted to perform, but didn’t have an outlet.
“It became a real positive movement because we kept kids out of some serious stuff,” Garcia says.
The troupe was a good move for him too, as he battled his own demons, hanging out with people who were bad influences and encountering his own scuffles with the law. Though he dropped out of high school, he found his way back. After earning a GED, he began dedicating his life to helping other young kids who were lost.
“Somebody has got to be able to work with them,” he explains. “I was involved in tough things in my life, and somebody helped me out, guided me.”
Now Garcia has paid it forward. One of his students is a dancer with the legendary Alvin Ailey dance company. Another tracked him down years after finishing the program and embraced him with gratitude.
When asked about part-time staffer Hamilton, Garcia beams. Not only did Jermaine receive his GED last spring, he also will be attending Brandeis University in the fall.
“Jermaine and [his sister] are a pride and joy of mine,” Garcia says.
However, despite the success stories, Garcia worries about what the future looks like. He admits that after 11 years of working with the students, it is getting harder and harder to reach more kids.
“This generation of children is so different than what I started out with,” he says. “The reality of their future is dim. Their expectations are limited. The boys and girls are OK with hitting each other. They are OK with mistreating each other. They are OK in dealing with each other in any kind of way.”
He pauses for a moment, then continues: “A lot of these kids don’t care. They just don’t care. They hope that what they invest their heart in won’t break their heart.”
So, Garcia says, he invests his heart in them.
“For me, I can say, ‘I talked the talk and walked the walk,’” he says. “If it wasn’t for the wrong, I wouldn’t know right.”
As the students prepare for their next scene, Garcia interrupts three boys playfully tousling each other while two girls watch and snap their gum with attitude.
“Why’s everybody chewing gum?” he asks. The girls quickly walk to the trashcan and dispose of the distraction.
Then the teacher goes back to directing his students, putting his hands on the shoulder of one young man who seems ready and eager to listen.
Youth and Police in Partnership will be performing “Know the Law” over the next several weeks in various high schools and community centers. Those interested in attending a performance can call the Huntington Theatre for more information at 617-273-1564.