Shakespeare in Denver Schools

June 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: You could forgive them, downtown Denver’s crowds, if they assumed that some strange time machine had turned the city back 400 years to Shakespeare’s day, the bard himself at large, Henry V’s St. Crispin’s speech at hand.

BOY: “What’s he that wishes so? My cousin, Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin, if we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss.”

PAUL SOLMAN: For 17 years, the Denver public schools– K-12, 71,000 strong, four-fifths of them minorities, and two-thirds needing help to fund their daily lunch– have done what seems impossible these days. With inner city schools so roundly scorned for failing to teach kids to read and write, or care about the past or foreign lands, they’ve mounted scenes from Shakespeare in the spring and managed to engage 3,000 players to strut their stuff and fret up on the stage.

BOY: “I trust him with affairs of state, but he would send us to a watery fate.”

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s pretty hard when all the world’s a stage, and all the players in their teens or less, each speaking metered verse in ten-beat lines: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

GIRL: “Injurious Hermia! Most ungrateful maid! The sisters vows, the hours we have spent where we have chid the hasty-footed time.”

PAUL SOLMAN: This spring it seemed the Denver-fest was doomed for lack of funds. They needed $38,000, which an angel gave because he thought this project taught so much.

BOY: “My Ariel, be free and fare thou well.” ( Applause )

PAUL SOLMAN: So once again the crowds cheer on their stars, as Shakespeare’s shows continue to go on.

JOE CRAFT: Okay. Everybody’s looking great.

PAUL SOLMAN: Joe Craft, an English teacher, steers the ship. While others argue whether standard tests should be the metric for what’s learned at school, craft thinks that Shakespeare’s words are sterner stuff. It forces kids to learn to read and think.

JOE CRAFT: If they can learn to read Shakespeare, they can learn to read anything. We start them early enough so they begin to pick it up, and it feels like their own language to them. So they go home and they say to their parents, you know, “we’re doing Shakespeare,” and they say, “oh, no, you can’t do Shakespeare. Nobody can do Shakespeare.” And then they come and see them and they say, “well, they’re doing Shakespeare.”

CHRISTOPHER DUNCAN: “Speak, if you can. What are you?”

PAUL SOLMAN: The words come proudly now, although at first they didn’t quite come trippingly off the tongue.

CHRISTOPHER DUNCAN: The first time I figured it out, it was “Macbeth,” I was like, “yay.” But then I looked at the script and I was like, “whoa. This is really different.” It was almost like learning a different language.

PAUL SOLMAN: If this be madness, there’s a method in it.

CHRISTOPHER DUNCAN: “I have no reason to kill him.”

PAUL SOLMAN: It took Chris Duncan months to learn “Macbeth.”

CHRISTOPHER DUNCAN: “Where are they? Gone! Let this pernicious hour stand accursed in the calendar.”

PAUL SOLMAN: But now he’s learned so well, he speaks his lines faster than the rest of us can parse them.

CHRISTOPHER DUNCAN: “Do speak further about this.”

GIRL: “Look up clear. Be confident and leave all the rest to me.”

GIRL: “A drum! A drum! Macbeth doth come!”

PAUL SOLMAN: By festival time, all Park Hill School’s fifth grade had mastered a short version of “Macbeth.” The play abridged, but not the daunting verse, with words and rhythms the S.A.T’s won’t touch, like those of the three crones who stir the plot.

CHILDREN: “Thus do go about. Thrice to die, and thrice to mine. And thrice again to make up nine.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Now you begin by saying, “when shall we three meet again,” right?

GIRL: Yeah.

GIRL: Yeah.

CHRIS SMITH: “When shall we three meet again,” because we’re like, “when shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Right. And then you use a word… You say, “when the…”

KEEANA PULLENS: “When the hurly-burly is done, when the battle’s lost and won.”

PAUL SOLMAN: “When the hurly-burly’s done.” What’s a hurly-burly?

KEEANA PULLENS: It’s just like… It’s like this phony word that you use. It’s not…

PAUL SOLMAN: What? What, what?



STUDENT: The war.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s the war? The hurly-burly, the fighting.

CHRIS SMITH: “When the battle is lost and won.”

PAUL SOLMAN: I see. So the hurly-burly is like the battle?


PAUL SOLMAN: Reporter: Shakespeare’s language in the mouths of babes; it seemed to be such stuff as dreams are made on.

BOY: “And I shall hear my Thisbe say, Thisbe oh, Thisbe, Thisbe, Thisbe.”

PAUL SOLMAN: If Shakespeare’s words pose problems for us all, to one in six of these kids, English is a foreign language they don’t speak at home. Spanish is the native tongue of Thisbe– Fernando Gomez– here for just three years.

PAUL SOLMAN: How good was your English when you came here?

FERNANDO GOMEZ: Actually, I didn’t speak any English when I come here.

PAUL SOLMAN: None at all.

FERNANDO GOMEZ: None at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: And now you’re doing Shakespeare?

FERNANDO GOMEZ: My third year I’m doing Shakespeare and really like it. It’s pretty cool.

RENE SOTO: I used to be like a very shy guy, so doing this I can get in front of a large crowd and just go loose, do whatever I want.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did it really change you that way?

RENE SOTO: Yeah. I lost my shyness mostly. In the classroom I’m like one of the… What is that, that sit back in the… Way back in the room and stay quiet, don’t answer any questions or nothing like that. Well, now I still sit in back of the room but I talk more, I answer the questions.

PAUL SOLMAN: If some had lost their language fears, some had none. The queen of fairies in “Midsummer Night” explains in this speech how time’s out of joint.

TAREENA WIMBUSH MAHDI: “And through this distemperature, we watch the seasons alter. The hoary-headed frosts falls in the lap of the crimson rose.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Could you tell us who Titania is and what you were saying there in that speech of yours?

TAREENA WIMBUSH MAHDI: She is queen of the fairies. And she’s talking to the fairy king about how they need to have intercourse because she knows that he’s sleeping with other females, but they need to get together so that the seasons are in order.

PAUL SOLMAN: Anybody in your family or friends find this is a slightly shocking monologue to be doing on the street corner in Denver?

TAREENA WIMBUSH MAHDI: No, my mother didn’t find it shocking at all. She’s seen worse things than that.

PAUL SOLMAN: The famous bard spoke surely to his times, but has time made his work seem out of date?

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you feel that the themes you were writing about are really relevant to people who… In a country that you couldn’t have imagined in your time, for example, from ethnic groups that were certainly not together in your day?

MATT LANG: I actually believe that it helps us all come together as one from many different backgrounds and many different societies. And back then it was only men, and now we let in women, and they perform even better than I believe the men do. ( Laughs )

BOY: “Who knows not or what dost where his thing?”

PAUL SOLMAN: The women do perform now, but their roles are scarcely changed, and frankly, there’s the rub. “The taming of the shrew,” to pick just one, is not exactly P.C. in an age when women are presumed as strong as men.

MAREN LEWIS: “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s not that Kathryn never held her own; it’s just that she was held by stronger hands.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you get mad sometimes when you see how you’re being treated in this play?

MAREN LEWIS: Oh, yeah. I’m very frustrated about how he can just throw her around and that was acceptable at that time period to smack her and to spank her and to throw her around and things of that nature, to grasp her in such a way so that she can’t move.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, the play’s the thing that made her think.

MAREN LEWIS: I’ve been very interested in medieval time periods, and not just medieval time periods, but the period of when women were suppressed and didn’t have the vote or things like that. And it brings me to a place of realizing what they actually went through.

BOY: “And let her be Kate. Then let Kate be chaste.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Will Shakespeare plays to kids because he sensed that common folks respond to common things– to jealousy and love, to greed and gags– themes that play so well in Denver streets because he knew what fools we mortals be.