On Saturday, May 17, 2014 my husband and I went to Hobart Elementary school in downtown Los Angeles to watch Shakespeare’s play, “Cymbeline,” presented by a group of fourth and fifth grade students from Room 56 who call themselves, “The Hobart Shakespeareans.”
I’m sure you are thinking—“Fourth graders—what watered-down version of “Cymbeline” did they perform at that age?”
This was not watered-down Shakespeare—this was the real thing—every word, every line, every nuance was pure unabridged Shakespeare and was presented with aplomb, elegance, and downright sophistication—and yes—by fourth and fifth grade students! We were blown away by these young people touting lines of Shakespeare with feeling and emotion you would expect to hear from Broadway professionals.
Their teacher, Rafe Esquith (just call him, Rafe) began teaching his students Shakespeare over twenty years ago as a way to help his students learn English, increase vocabulary, and problem solve. For anyone remotely familiar with Shakespearean drama and its complicated diction and subject matter, this is no easy feat. The students volunteer to come throughout the summer to dissect the play’s intricate language, learn accompanying parts on musical instruments, and foster a genuinely collaborate spirit. After eleven months of rehearsals, the students perform the production to an awed public. Rafe’s goal is to take his students’ natural gifts and turn them into something extraordinary—character qualities and creative gifts that will benefit them in the future workplace. And by doing so, he changes lives.
Only 30 percent of the children at Hobart Elementary graduate from high school, that is, unless you are in Room 56. One-hundred percent of Rafe’s students graduate from high school and go on to college and not just any college—Columbia, Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Dartmouth, UCLA, USC, Brown, Notre Dame, and the list goes on and on.
Mark and I were privileged to sit behind the Cuapio family. Their son, Emmanuel was playing the part of Cymbeline, King of Britain. They told us their other children had been in Rafe’s class and their daughter had been a part of The Hobart Shakespeareans when she was in the fifth grade. She is now at the University of California, Riverside studying political science with the end goal being law school. No doubt Emmanuel will also be a college graduate. Mr. and Mrs. Cuapio are immigrants from Mexico and are clearly proud of their children’s accomplishments and what they have learned by being part of The Hobart Shakespeareans.
Every student gave a breathtaking performance demonstrating talent well beyond their years. Some of the actors included Cymbeline’s Queen, played by Joanna Choi, Imogen played by Jessica Miguel, Posthumus played by Jason Jimenez and Cloten played by Roland Pascual, (to name a few). And, they didn’t just act—they also sang and played musical instruments! There were no backstage assistants telling the students when to go on stage—every student knew exactly where they needed to be and when; when to change costumes (they wore different colored t-shirts), when to change scenery and props, and when to sing and dance. And everything was executed without a glitch!
The music was performed by middle school students and the singing, dancing and signing (ASL) by the elementary students. The choice of music was deliciously creative as they combined classical Shakespeare with modern, upbeat music including, “Good Vibrations,” “That’s Amore,” and “Let it Be” (btw: they performed a total of 17 pieces of very difficult music).
The Hobart Shakespeareans have been seen and supported by many celebrities including Hal Holbrook, Ian McKellen, John Lithgow, Michael York, and Josh Groban (who contributed nearly $30,000 to the Shakespeareans just this year).
Before the play, Rafe related to the audience the untiring efforts needed to put together a performance of this magnitude. And he pointed out that the reason these children are able to learn and memorize Shakespeare is because of music. “Music is crucial for a child’s complete development no matter his aptitude. Music must not be optional,” he said. He also stated that although the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District wants to put a computer tablet in every child’s hand, he would rather see a violin in every child’s hand!
Bravo to the Hobart Shakespeareans and to Rafe!
Next year—2015—they will be performing: “A Winter’s Tale.” Don’t miss it!
Check out their website: http://www.hobartshakespeareans.org/