Published on Wednesday, November 30, 2016 by Danica Mendes
The lights blind senior Caleb Duane as he takes the stage. He feels the familiar rush of adrenaline as a hush falls over the audience. Caleb is used to performing to both crowds large and small, but this time it’s different. This time he is performing for the shows creator. This time he portrays a character with the writer, who originally brought this true story to stage, sitting in the audience.
Theatre teacher Jacob Justice chose The Story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg as the fall show and contacted the playwright, Nina Serrano for confirmation to make a few changes to the script. While talking with her she expressed interest in flying in from California to see the play and work with the students.
“The show is about taking a journey into the life of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,” Justice said. “The play is about injustice and reminding society, as a whole, that people don’t have to settle for what is decided or said to be true by the government and those in power and that we can’t just assume that they always get it right. In this play, we see that the ends don’t justify the means.”
The play was written in the ‘70s about incidents that occurred surrounding the Rosenberg case in New York in 1953 when Serrano was a teenager. The Rosenbergs were executed for conspiracy of espionage.
“It was a case that was happening all around me, and it wasn’t just the headlines,” Serrano said. “It was a case that was happening all around the world, people across the whole planet were trying to save the Rosenbergs for over two years including the most famous painter, Pablo Picasso, who did portraits and sketches as a part of this movement to save the Rosenbergs. I was very aware of it as a teenager.”
Serrano was present in the street the night the Rosenbergs were executed, as rallies took place and people counted down to the execution.
“They began counting down from 10 to 9 and when they got to 8 the police turned off the loud speakers and the people would repeat to each other how many seconds there were until the the last second of their execution,” Serrano said. “I was about 17 years old at the time, and that left a great impact to be standing amongst the thousands of people mourning over the injustice of this execution.”
Serrano was thrilled to hear from Justice and have the opportunity to see a new generation of students perform her play.
“I was very excited when Justice contacted me because high school students are the future,” Serrano said. “It’s a way, as a writer, of propelling our work into the future, and also making it something very organic in the lives of the students. To perform a play, you have to get so intimate with each character and it’s not like reading a history book where you memorize the name and date of a person. You have to explore the soul of that person.”
Though the play had been sitting in a filing cabinet for over 40 years, Justice reworked sections of the play to help students connect more to the process.
“It was impossible for me to think that this [performance] would happen and I that I would not see it,” Serrano said. “[Jacob] made revisions to make more action in the play, to make it more appropriate for youth, and I wanted to see what a new concept of theater 40 years later looked like.”
Theatre is more than just standing on a stage and pretending to be another person. Actors must become the character they are portraying, and communicate to the public who that character really is.
“I found it difficult playing Julius,” Caleb said. “Capturing the character’s humanity while also portraying his strong and older attributes during his court case was difficult. It’s hard to have emotion and show weak moments of the character while keeping his persona and strength.”
Knowing that this play is based off of true events and being able to understand where a character comes from and how emotionally driven this play is not only motivates the theater students, but helps bring the play to life.
“I got to play someone that was real,” senior Ale Reyes said. “I think I was really motivated by the responsibility that came with Ethel. She was so strong and I was drawn to that.”
The students who performed the play were touched by the play’s context and hope their work touches others and conveys a message each time they take the stage.
“Theater is just another medium for telling stories,” Ale said. “Out of all of them, it’s the medium that is most willing to tell the more guilty, controversial stories.”
The experience was just as special for Serrano as it was for the students and she enjoyed seeing new life in her play.
“I left here reborn and renewed,” Serrano said. “Even though it was the night [of the] fateful election I left with a lot of optimism to see young, passionate, and intelligent students like these.”
Justice said that he was both honored and humbled that Serrano came to Bryan High to be a part of the process.
“It’s not typical that a high school gets to premiere a new version of a show,” Justice said, “and it’s even more rare that a playwright comes and spends time with the students and this whole experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity for these guys to really get to workshop a show. This experience has been thrilling for me as well.”