Students of the Marshall High School Renaissance Arts Academy not only watched a live theater show about public education and the Civil Rights Movement late last month – they were actively inspired to build a protest movement of their own to keep open the doors of their school.
That show, "The Hillsboro Story," has proved so powerful that a community dialogue on it is scheduled this Saturday, Nov. 6, from 12:30-2:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Avenue Baptist Church.
The event features writer/director/actress Susan Banyas, composer David Ornette Cherry, Vancouver Avenue Pastor Matt Hennessee, Jo Ann Bowman and Rev. Renee Ward.
Marshal High School is set for closure this June, as Portland Schools Superintendent Carole Smith and a divided vote of the school board this summer removed the axe from Benson and Jefferson High Schools and firmly pointed it toward the only high school serving the impoverished Lents district in outer Southeast.
That's why emotions were high Oct. 22, when a large contingent of Marshall Renaissance Arts Academy students attended Banyas' moving stage show, which is about the struggle for school integration in her small hometown in Ohio in the mid-1950s.
The play itself offers a pocket history of the Civil Rights Movement during that decade, even as it tells the stories of several individuals – both Black and White – who were instrumental in eventually forcing the integration of Hillsboro's schools.
During a Talk Back session after the play, actor K.B. Mercer – as well as fellow actors Laverne Green and Jennifer Lanier — encouraged the students to share their thoughts on Marshall's closure. By the end of the comments many students, and the entire cast of "The Hillsboro Story," were openly weeping.
"Over the summer I met so many people, and I'd thought I was going to feel lonely," said one boy who transferred to Marshall this fall from out of state. "People in Oregon? It's different than in California. I thought I was going to be alone.
"And like, I met so many people, I like, feel like I'm home again," he said. "Now they're closing down the school, and everything's going to change, and I'll have to start all over again from scratch. And I'm going to be a senior. It's hard."
"Well, I'm in foster care, so I've been in about five different foster homes since July," another teen said. "And I've been to about three different schools – every year of high school—and I just came here and I started meeting people and, like, I've never – I've always been the outcast, I've never had friends.
"There's been so much going on in my life right now, like I've been getting great grades, and that's really big for me because my grades have always been so bad. And it's just, it really sucks that they're closing it down because it's like, what am I going to do next year? I mean it's just really hard." The girl broke down sobbing.
"And it's a tough place to be in, isn't it? I mean this is a very, very tough place to be in," Green told the students. "And it's filled with all kinds of incredibly tough decisions, just like what folks were talking about in the play here."
"I just want to say to you all, you have power in your voice, you have power in your imagination," Banyas said. "Put your voice to work, because you're all very powerful people, and our future—you are our future," she said to thunderous applause.
Community outreach director Dwight Payne encouraged the students to think again about what happened in the play – in which the students and their families boycotted the Blacks-only elementary school and sued the school district until the Whites-only schools' doors were opened to all children.
"You are powerful," Payne said, as the theater again broke out into a resounding roar of cries and shouts. "You can win if you stand up for your rights."
"I get that if we resist and not go to school and keep the money out of the school system that they would reconsider it," one girl said. "But we all love our school, and we all want to get our education right now. Most of us will be the first ones to graduate in our family."
"We were discussing how we want to save Marshall, but we don't know how to," student Jesse Davis said after the show. "But maybe since seeing this, we'll get a lot more students involved in the process of trying to help Marshall out of the hole that we kind of helped dig, because we didn't lend our voices to be heard at first."
"He had very inspirational words and he gave really good ideas and it could motivate us to have our own ideas how to save Marshall," a student who gave only his first name, Desmond, said about Dwight Payne. "If we somehow get more school people together, we can try to figure out what to do."
Artists Repertory Theatre and "The Hillsboro Story" playwright Susan Banyas host a community forum to discuss personal responses to the production and the issues that it raises, Saturday, Nov. 6, 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, 3130 N Vancouver Ave., Portland.
Moderators are Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee and Jo Ann Bowman. Panelists include playwright Susan Banyas, composer David Ornette Cherry, ART Artistic Director Allen Nause, and Associate Pastor Rev. Renee Ward.
Admission is free, for more information go to www.artistsrep.org. Call the church at 503-282-9496.