Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Showing Kids The Darkness: Downtown Montessori's A Study In Time

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The usual people who were out front of the Alchemist Theatre before a show weren’t smoking. On closer inspection, they weren’t even the usual people . . . They were roughly half as tall as Alchemist’s usual street slouchers and considerably younger. I was going in for an early evening’s performance of a theatrical presentation by The Upper Elementary Class of the Downtown Montessori School.

It always feels a bit odd going to a children’s show . . . even going to something at First Stage on assignment, I always feel the need to announce to everyone I make eye contact with that I’m there on business and not some sicko who goes to children’s shows for some other more insidious reason . . . and anyway, I’d been INVITED to see this show and cover it by the Alchemist’s Aaron Kopec, who even offered me beer . . . and having nothing else scheduled, I felt it important to go and check it out . . .

The show in question turned out to be a bit more involved than I’d expected. The show’s title was A Study In Time. Written entirely by the students by way of  assignments given to them by their teachers, the play told the story of a pair of DC kids who run across a time machine that helps them witness key moments in history in order to do their homework. Interesting.

Peter and Lily played Gabe and Vanessa traveling through time in thirteen different scenes. What interested me was the points in history the Downtown Montessori School had its students going to . . . I seem to remember being somewhat proud of the complexity of the history lessons given to me in grade school. I went to a progressive school system that endeavored to give a more realistic portrayal of history than more traditional grade schools. We were taught about the brutality of the first pilgrims North America who had at one point engaged in necro-cannibalism to survive a particularly harsh winter (and that bit of history given to us right after lunch . . .) We were taught about the trail of tears and the brutality of Cortez in a great amount of detail. As if to top the darkness we were privy to in a suburban grade school in the mid-1980’s, the Downtown Montessori school had its students learn about the US Army’s evacuation of the Bonus Army in 1932, Japanese Internment camps during World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other things.

It was interesting (and more than a bit surreal) to see kids young nough to be putting on a traditional Christmas pageant staging dramatizations of some particularly complex points in the nation’s history. Some of them may have hammed-up the comedy a bit (they were mostly performing for family and faculty members) but there’s an intimate understanding of some of history’s darker moments here . . . and it’s important to give kids that kind of understanding right away. They may laugh about being forced to stage that sort of thing now, but guiding people away from cherished myths about history from a very early age is absolutely essential to giving the next generation a the kind of education it’s going to need to tackle the problems we’re handing them. It may not have been anywhere near as polished as a First Stage production, but  A Study In Time is a step in the right direction. Grade schools need to be looking to do this sort of thing more often . . .


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