How a fourth-grade teacher is using theater to talk about race

With heads still covered, the performers — all fourth-graders at Success Academy Bronx 2 — take turns naming, with honor, the black teens and men, some not very much older than themselves, who in recent years have been killed in high-profile incidents by police or others.

Six black boys in gray hoodies line up in a classroom in the South Bronx. One by one, they speak.

“Do you see me?” the first boy asks, his voice heralding the middle octave of youth.

“Do you see me?” his classmates intone, one after the next after the next. “Do you see me? … “Do you see me?”

With heads still covered, the performers — all fourth-graders at Success Academy Bronx 2 — take turns naming, with honor, the black teens and men, some not very much older than themselves, who in recent years have been killed in high-profile incidents by police or others.

“Freddie … Michael … Philando … Tamir,” they say. “Eric … Alton … Trayvon … Jordan.”

Their spoken-word production, “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” demonstrates how acutely these boys are aware of race in their world — and how much they want to talk about it, their teacher, Sentell Harper, told CNN.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today we’re gonna talk about race,'” said Harper, who is black. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Killings spur conversations, art

After the death of Michael Brown — the black teen whose shooting in 2014 by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fueled the Black Lives Matter movement — Harper discovered the poem, “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” by Danez Smith. He knew he wanted his students to perform it.

“With the killings of black men and boys being in the media, it was really just scary in my world,” he said. “I thought about the boys I was teaching. … Society won’t see them like I see them. Society will only see them as black men.”

An actor and playwright, Harper crafted a five-part performance that includes, in order: a poem by rapper Tupac Shakur called, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?”; a few lines from Langston Hughes’ “Poplar Tree”; Danez Smith’s “Alternative Names for Black Boys”; a litany of names of black men and boys “who have been senselessly killed”; and a monologue that speaks to the future of young black boys.

“When I do this piece, I’m, like, proving everybody wrong, that I could get an education, and I could go somewhere in my life,” performer Tysean Wheeler said.

“We want to prove people wrong about what black men and boys can do, because we might be the future men would could get shot or killed,” Gregory Hannah, another performer, said.

Words of their fathers

When he started staging the production, Harper said he worried about the response to boys “speaking and talking about something very heavy. But the response has been amazing,” he said, especially from the performers’ fathers.

“I feel like the sons are speaking the words that the fathers may not say or may not have the words to say,” Harper said.

Each new class of fourth-graders brings a fresh perspective to the piece, with the latest cast invited to perform at theater conferences and the famed Carnegie Hall. Harper also has created a piece about what it means to be a girl of color, which his students performed for Black History Month.

“I’m always thinking about what I can discuss with my scholars, be it race, be it beauty norms, be it any kind of socially relevant topics,” he said. “I’m trying to keep one foot in front of the other by making and creating pieces that help them with those discussions.”