Illustration: Ethan Heitner
It was a Thursday afternoon just before 4 p.m. I was sitting with my students around an old wooden table in the library of New York City’s Jamaica High School. We were one day away from the scheduled performance of a play the students had written about school “reform” and specifically the planned phaseout of Jamaica High. From the excited talk amongst the students about costume choices and their nervousness about remembering their lines, it was clear they had no idea what was coming. But I was bracing myself to deliver some bad news. Earlier in the day I had received an email from a colleague informing me that the performance was being barred by the students’ principals, who “had issues with the script and are concerned about implications and negative references to the department of education as well as the chancellor and mayor.”
The play, Declassified: Struggle for Existence (We Used to Eat Lunch Together), is based on the classic play Antigone and was written as part of a college-credit elective I teach at Queensborough Community College, geared toward local area high school students. In addition to reading and discussing a translation of the classic Greek text, we also read The Island, a play by John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard about two political prisoners who stage Antigone to affirm their protest of apartheid South Africa. The exploration of both texts involved discussions of major themes like power, loyalty, and rebellion, as well as an exploration of individual lines that resonated with us.
We often worked in small groups to create short scenes, sometimes rooted in specific text and sometimes loosely riffing on a theme or idea. For example, one day I brought in index cards—each one printed with lines from Antigone that the students had chosen. “You can’t just pluck your honor off a bush you didn’t plant” and “Your conscience is what’s doing the disturbing” were two of the favorites I recall. In small groups, the students chose one of the cards, discussed the meaning of the line, and created a scene to share with the rest of the class. (Many of the lines explored in this way later found their way into our final play.) On another day I brought in images of rebellion—a theme we had been discussing—and placed them around the room. These images included the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics, as well as the 1936 Flint, Mich., sit-down strike and the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Students discussed the image they were most drawn to and why, and then set out to create a scene based on the image. After viewing each scene we discussed the story and the relationships in the scene, as well as how effectively it had been staged. We would then try to make links back to the story of Antigone. Through this process, with a strong example provided by our reading of The Island, students developed a sense of how the themes and power dynamics in the Greek text play out in other circumstances and how the story of Antigone can resonate politically and socially.
We then began to explore possible ways of adapting the story to speak to a contemporary issue. The situation at Jamaica High School was not our first choice. One group worked on an entire story line that dealt with SB 1070, the controversial Arizona anti-immigrant law, which students connected to the use of passbooks in apartheid South Africa. Another group attempted to create a story about the quality of free lunch in public schools, drawing on our brief discussion of the Attica prison uprising. But as Jamaica High School was slated to be phased out by the New York City Department of Education, and this had been a topic of discussion outside of class, it wasn’t long before some of the students saw the parallel. Admittedly, it had been on my mind and I was debating whether or not to push the idea. But before I even had a chance to, Neil said, “You know what we should do. . . .”