Reginald Gaines runs poetry/theater workshop for high schoolers

Here is one of the recent pieces I did for The Jersey Journal that I really enjoyed.

Grammy and Tony-Nominated writer Reginald Gaines poses for a portrait at Journal Square on April 13, 2011. Cassi Alexandra/The Jersey Journal

Through the dim light of the black box theater in Snyder High School in Jersey City shines a beacon of real, unpretentious wisdom.

Five young sets of eyes watch as Grammy and Tony award-nominated writer Reginald Gaines leans back in his seat and crosses his arms with true Chilltown swagger, the coolness that can only come from a Jersey City childhood.

Today, the Visual and Performing Arts students are turning lyrics from popular songs into theatrical monologues as part of Gaines’s weekly “Is Poetry Theater?” workshop.

Alyssia Marte, a sophomore from Ferris High School, performs “16 @ War” by Karina Pasian. She says coolly, “Ain’t no daddies where I’m from,” before suddenly spitting, “Just mad mothers!”

“Use the alliteration,” advises Gaines. “Break up that line. Say ‘mad,’ then your name, then ‘mothers.”

“Ain’t no daddies where I’m from – Just Mad Mothers,” she says. She squeals. “I felt that!”

The writer behind the Broadway hit “Bring in da Noise/Bring in da Funk” preaches the gospel of using dynamics, avoiding balance, and emphasizing monosyllables to capture the audience.

He relates to the kids without talking down to them.

“All I know is what I know,” said Gaines. “If I happen to know something about their culture, I can use it.”

He reminds students that they are competing with theatregoers’ smart phones for attention and comments on people’s abilities to absorb widespread culture through what he calls “brain-dead rotation.”

Tomorrow, the students will play small parts in Gaines’s latest musical, “Lessons on the A Train,” where his understanding of young urban life will be front and center.

“I’m creating vignettes where we comment on the theme of dreams in a nonlinear way,” he said.

“It’s a coming-of-age story about two young ladies from the Bronx on the subway train going downtown,” explained Gaines. “They’re very unsure about their abilities to go to college and they wind up talking to a man selling candy on the train. They find out he’s going to college and he’s selling candy to get books. He becomes their guidance counselor.”

To the high schoolers he works with every week, Gaines is their candy man, selling them sweet morsels of realistic wisdom.

“The chances of you ever being nominated for a Tony are slim,” he said plainly. “You can be talented and work hard as hell, but if you don’t get a break, you’re going to be disappointed.”

He does, however, want his students to know that they can do it.

As County Prep sophomore Daniel Wilson performs Eminem’s “Not Afraid” as a man losing his mind, Gaines sees potential.

“You need to work on this hard,” says Gaines.

Without hesitation, Daniel looks up and replies, “Yes, sir.”

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About Summer Dawn Hortillosa

Summer Dawn Hortillosa is a journalist specializing in arts and entertainment. Among other things, she is also an award-winning playwright, director, singer-songwriter and actress. Her work has been seen in The Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal and other publications.
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