Like High School Musical, But Real
Students at Benjamin Franklin High School tackle real life onstage.
From the April 22, 2009 Philadelphia Weekly.
Robert Ingram, the high school football star, slouches over the long, collapsible, standard-issue, public school cafeteria table and rests his head on his arm.
"Why you not eating, man?" asks his friend, Anthony Wortham. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Ingram mumbles as he fondles his cell phone.
"You usually crushing stuff, you big strong man," Wortham sasses.
"Don't be playing like that," Ingram answers, his voice a mixture of annoyance and defeat.
The star athlete, it turns out, has just learned that his football scholarship to college was rescinded because his grades are so bad.
"I might as well start hustling or something," Ingram concedes.
The seven other students at the table jump to life, fighting to keep Ingram from falling prey to the streets. They offer their own tales of battling difficulties.
"I used to be a straight-A student," Roberta Wilkins announces. "Not anymore. I'm pregnant."
The table erupts with students badgering the high school junior about who's the father. Other students enter the scene, and arguing ensues. The situation quickly escalates into shouting and shoving.
As music blares from the speakers and dancers hit the stage, chaotic, fake violence explodes. Students air-punch each other and mock wrestle all around.
Then the curtain closes, bringing the scene to an end.
The students at Benjamin Franklin High School wanted to do a talent or fashion show, but the principal, Christopher Johnson, challenged the students to combine everything into a spring play. It would be the first ever public theater production in the school's history.
Interested, but unsure of how to proceed, the students approached their student government advisor, Leonard Bryant. A 26-year-old former star football player at Indiana University who also coaches Ben Franklin's softball team and assists the football team, Bryant saw an opportunity for the students to empower themselves.
"This play is all them," he says.
With the help of a playwright, the students crafted a script using themes from their own lives. They wrote songs and choreographed dance steps. They built the set, sold tickets and rehearsed for up to three hours per day, usually directing themselves.
About 60 students got involved.
On May 1, they'll present Having Done All to Stand, a multifaceted performance touching on issues of violence, addiction, parenthood, sexuality, education and conflict resolution.
"It's like a high school musical," Bryant says, "but it's almost real."
Sophomore Andreanna Mond peeks through the curtains, then turns around, outraged.
"That's my boyfriend she's kissing!" she screams as she rolls her head, thrusts out her right hip and folds her arms with the utmost attitude.
"Some people think that what they're going through, they're going through alone," she says later, after rehearsal. "If they know it's common, they'll go get help."
In real life, she isn't the aggressive character she plays onstage, she says. She feels more akin to another character - one who spends extra long days at school because her home life is so uncomfortable. Mond, 16, lives in North Philly with her ailing 78-year-old father.
"School is an escape for me," she says.
"I'm the same product as they are," Bryant says of his students.
Bryant was raised west of Miami, in a poor town largely populated with recent arrivals from Haiti, Cuba and Mexico. He attended the former high school of four-time Pro Bowl runningback Edgerrin James. Bryant, the oldest of eight children to a struggling single mother, realized that sports could be his way to overcome life's challenges.
"I never thought about going to college," he says. "We seen Edgerrin James come back driving Bentleys. I wanted to play in the NFL."
After winning two state football championships in high school, Bryant was recruited to play defensive back at Indiana. He devoted his life to football, with his eyes on going pro. Then he suffered a pair of concussions during preseason his senior year of college. His girlfriend got pregnant. He started playing scared, and he kept getting injured.
"I realized the NFL wasn't going to come calling," he says.
With little to fall back on, Bryant made education his priority.
"I knew I had to step up," he says.
Ingram, the star football player onstage, was also the star football player at Franklin.
"It's basically my life," the 17-year-old senior says of his role.
The youngest of seven children to a single mother, the 5-foot-6-inch, 175-pound running back spoke to colleges about playing football.
But he couldn't get in with his grades.
"People don't know what I go through," he says. "I come to school smiling, but that's to cover my pain."
His brother was shot - but survived - last year. He doesn't see his father. And his relationship with his mother is rocky at best. An aspiring playwright, Ingram has already written five plays, and produced and starred in three of them. When Bryant, his football coach, told him about the school production, he jumped at the chance.
"It's a lot of what I see at Franklin every day," Ingram says of the play. "So maybe people will learn from us."