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‘Macbeth was a G’ West Roxbury school puts new spin on Shakespeare

Daniela Caride

“Welcome, sophomores and my beloved seniors,” a beaming Anna Portnoy says to a crowd of 200 students at the West Roxbury Education Complex Auditorium. “Class of Oh-Nine presents ‘Macbeth!’” she exclaims. The teenage audience goes crazy, cheering and whistling as the lights dim.

Portnoy, 30, teaches humanities to 11th-graders at Parkway Academy of Technology and Health (PATH), one of the four schools of the complex, and is directing more than half of her 60 students in the Shakespearean play. Some of them act, others handle the lighting, others play sound effects.

The production the teens are about to present — well, it isn’t exactly your father’s Bard.

The new school

On stage, after two boys tag a wall with graffiti reading “deception,” “guilt” and “power,” three witches in jean mini-skirts run past the audience towards the actors, cracking up like maniacs. In the spotlight, they tell an African American Macbeth that he will soon become king of Scotland.

A thrilled Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth, a Latina teen in a long green gown from The Garment District, plot regicide, then stab King Duncan in secret. The king’s sons flee, fearing the same fate.

“In ‘Macbeth,’ you can see the evolution of this character, who starts as a regular guy and then becomes obsessed with power,” says Portnoy. “And the first time that he kills in order to get that power, he is wrecked by guilt.”

Just like the witches said, Macbeth inherits his throne — a blue armchair borrowed from the community center next door. But guilt and fear of betrayal poison the couple’s minds; before you know it, Lady Macbeth has gone crazy and committed suicide.

Despite the updated dress codes, the teen actors are using the English of Shakespeare’s day. To help out the audience, the graffiti artists intermittently return to the stage to bring everyone up to speed on what’s happening. The soundtrack, however, isn’t all lutes and fifes, varying from pop classics like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to hip-hop tracks like 50 Cent’s “Many Men” that lead energized audience members to sing out loud.

Back to the action: A greedy Macbeth hallucinates on stage, haunted by the ghosts of the friends he assassinated. After a lot of ketchup blood and a few plastic sword fights, the play ends — spoiler alert — with one of King Duncan’s sons killing Macbeth and becoming the new king of Scotland.

So what did the teen dramatists learn from their rendition of one of the most famous plays ever written?

“Power corrupts,” says Marques Latimore, 16, who played Macbeth. “Just because you have power, it doesn’t mean that you can use it any way you want.”

From Scotland to the street

When she assigned “Macbeth” in her class, Portnoy says, her students “really loved” it.

“There’s a lot of violence in the communities these kids live in,” she says. She’s certain that they saw in “Macbeth” an opportunity to discuss the city’s problem with street violence, so frequently borne out of the same issues — the graffiti code words of deception, guilt and power — that plagued Shakespeare’s characters.

“They see that same mentality around them,” she says. “It’s modern Boston, and not medieval Scotland.”
Portnoy builds suspense when she teaches “Macbeth,” having the students read one act of the play and watch the corresponding scenes from Roman Polanski’s 1971 film version of the story before moving on to the next section.

“A lot of the kids say, ‘Oh, Macbeth is a G,’” short for gangster, Portnoy says, sitting on one the 400 seats at the education complex’s theater during rehearsal. “And in the end, they get to see the consequences for Macbeth with that same kind of mentality.”

This is the second year Portnoy has taught at PATH, and the second time she has assigned “Macbeth.” This school year, she says, the students got very excited about the play — in October, she asked the students to act out a few scenes, and in small groups they designed costumes, developed sets and rehearsed some of the play’s passages.

Then some of them started pressuring Portnoy to actually put on a play. Even though her only dramatic experience consisted of a few classes at the Watertown Children’s Theatre when she was around 8 years old, she didn’t get intimidated.

“Their enthusiasm was enough for me to say, ‘Let’s try it,’” she says.

After cutting the play down to a few scenes and holding auditions in her classroom during lunch periods, Portnoy started directing rehearsals in November for two hours a day after class. She made calendars to schedule each student for the scenes they had to rehearse.

“It’s been a challenge, because a lot of them have jobs, and in order to be here, they have to sacrifice being at their jobs,” says Portnoy. “It’s very demanding. Even I did not know how much work it was. None of us knew.”

Portnoy also made sacrifices to bring “Macbeth” to the stage this month, grading papers and planning classes at the Waltham Public Library while directing the play during after-school hours.

“I’ve made friends at my public library because if I try to do it at home, I just fall asleep,” she says, smiling and pulling her straight brown hair behind her ear.

Those sacrifices have not gone unnoticed.

“Ms. Portnoy did this out of pure love for the school and Shakespeare,” says PATH Principal Pam Hilton.

That later love, Portnoy confesses, is fairly recent.
“I never had a fantastic English teacher in high school and I never really was exposed very much to Shakespeare,” she says. “In high school, I just didn’t understand it.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 2002, when Portnoy was living in Toronto, that a trip to watch a performance of “King Lear” made her realize she enjoyed Shakespeare.

“It was fabulous,” she remembers. “And that forced me to read the play.”

A combination of passions

Before coming to PATH, Portnoy worked mostly with 12th-graders at Fenway High School, her first full-time job in education.

After graduating from Harvard University with a bachelor’s in comparative religion in 2000, she spent most of her early twenties in editorial work, spending all day in front of a computer. But she dabbled in teaching several times, such as when she worked for an after school program in Boston.

When she got a job as teaching fellow at Harvard in 2004, she started reading the books of educator and activist Jonathan Kozol, best known for his books on public education, who she remembers participated in one class as a guest speaker.

“[After that], I decided that my passion really lies with working with people,” she says. “I had that desire to make a difference, [and] I do have a passion for literature. I thought I could bring that to my students.”

The love of literature stretches back to Portnoy’s childhood. As she remembers it, she wouldn’t let go of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” until she finished every last word, and used to love to read both classics (like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”) and what she calls “trashy books” (like Francine Pascal’s “Sweet Valley High” series).

Many of the works in the PATH curriculum — like August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” which Portnoy’s students are reading now — could become the school’s next theatrical project. But “money is always an issue,” she notes.

At a school like PATH, dedicated primarily to technology and health, the arts aren’t really considered in the budget, according to principal Hilton.

“We don’t have much opportunity to give them a theater class,” since the school depends on financial support from the community to develop projects in arts, says Hilton. Case in point: A donor paid the $250 necessary to produce “Macbeth” and purchase the costumes for 17 actors, all of which fit in one box.

But since they started this production, the students’ interests in arts have continued to grow, says Portnoy. She asked them to write letters thanking one another for their participation in the play — they soon filled a basket with hundreds of notes talking about friendship and teamwork.

Latimore, who played Macbeth, is one of the students willing to take a new project. He says he believes putting on a show presents a great opportunity for students to tighten their bonds.

“This is a teamwork experience,” he says.
Jessica Lopez, Latimore’s 17-year-old Lady Macbeth, agrees. She says that theater can help students gain confidence and see what they can accomplish as a group.

“Shakespearean language is very hard. And for us to do a whole play in Shakespeare is a big thing,” she says.

Of course, she adds, something else about staying after school for a couple of hours every day is pretty important, too.

“We’re not going to the streets,” says Lopez. “We’re trying to do something.”

The next step

Portnoy says that some of her students are thinking of writing their own work to be performed by the class. She is even considering launching an arts program over the summer in addition to volunteering to direct a second play.

“I want to support the kids in whatever way I can, but I would also like to see more support for the arts in education … so these things would be possible on a greater scale,” she says.

“They have a lot of ideas; they have a lot of passion; they have a lot of creativity,” she says. “They just don’t have enough opportunity.”