Vince Green graduated from grammar school over eight years ago, but his teachers still remember him. "How can we forget? He was unbearable," says Mary Bonnett, the drama teacher at the Franklin Fine Arts Center. "He never stopped talking, never stopped challenging. Yet he was obviously talented at improv and acting."
Recognizing that talent, Bonnett and her colleagues pressed Green to channel his energy into acting, and apparently he listened. He's now a successful actor, best known to the teen set as Snookie, the DJ in last year's hit movie Save the Last Dance.
His story, still a work in progress, testifies to the powerful effect theater can have on the lives of students--the focus of an upcoming daylong conference Bonnett has organized for grammar and high school teachers. "It's not just the success stories, actors like Vince, that we want to talk about," she says. "It's the other side of the situation--all the kids who are lost because their talents are not recognized and developed."
By his own admission, Green, now 22, would have been one of those lost kids had his teachers not intervened. "I was basically a Cabrini-Green kid," he says. "I didn't live there--I lived at another subsidized complex right nearby. But I was in Cabrini all the time. That's where all of my cousins lived. That was my world."
He went to Byrd Elementary, a neighborhood school, through fourth grade. Then he transferred to Franklin, a magnet school at 225 W. Evergreen that specializes in the arts. "It was a big transition," he says. "Byrd's student body is African-American, whereas at Franklin you've got blacks and whites and Asians and Hispanics all in the same class. Now I'm sitting next to a child of another race, and it's different. We talk different, we laugh at different jokes, we grew up doing different things. I had to adjust."
One of the ways he found a place for himself was by doing what came easy. "I've always had this talent at improvisation," he says. "I can do accents. I can do imitations. Things come to my mind real fast, and I can take off. I'd say something, and all the kids would laugh. I'd be thinking, 'Cool--let's get some more of that.' The teacher would be looking at me nasty 'cause I messed up her class."
To his classmates Green was fresh and original, but Bonnett had seen his act before in her 20 years of teaching. He was, she says, like a lot of other brash students who live for the limelight, risking punishment for the chance to get a laugh. "I've learned to see the good in bad behavior--not that it makes my life any easier," she says. "They'll do something disruptive and then look you in the eye and deny that they did it. Or if you catch them in the act they'll try to turn the table and say, 'You don't like me.' It's acting, even if it's annoying and disruptive. You see the talent and you want to connect."
Green resisted her efforts to connect. "I wasn't channeling my energies," he says. "I'd do a great improv in class, and then I'd just talk back to teachers. I had this attitude--I'm gonna graduate, you can't touch me. I remember in eighth grade they called my mama into the office, and every single one of my teachers came in to talk about me. I was sitting outside the room, and I could see them walk in, and I didn't care. But then Ms. Fountain, my social studies teacher, came in. You have to understand, Ms. Fountain was the one teacher who could relate to me. She was a strong black woman, and I understand strong black women. She would tell me all the time, 'Vince, you're messing up.' I didn't want to disappoint her, but I didn't stop messing up. When I saw her walk into that office it kind of broke my heart. I knew I had let her down. I wouldn't admit it though. I was in denial. I was thinking, 'Oh, these teachers are evil, stabbing me in the back.' That was just a lack of maturity on my part. I didn't understand they were looking out for me."
Nevertheless, Bonnett tried to get Green into the Chicago Academy for the Arts, a prestigious private high school with a strong drama program. "I said I didn't want to go," he says. "She said, 'Vince, this is a big opportunity.' So I went to the audition. I had this whole monologue I had memorized. But they said it had to be written. I got up and walked out. I walked all the way home. I was heartbroken. I knew I had let Ms. Bonnett down."
Bonnett arranged a second audition. "This time she brought in an actor, and he worked with me on a scripted monologue," says Green. "But when the day of the audition came I didn't even go. I couldn't. I had this fear of rejection, of failure. I didn't want to accept the fact that it would take hard work to be an actor and that I might not make it."
Having blown his chance to get into the academy, Green went to Jones High School, then a vocational school. "I liked Jones, but it didn't have a drama department," he says. "I was just sort of wasting time, goofing around. One teacher asked me in front of the class, 'What are your goals?' I said, 'I want to play in a big movie.' The teacher looked at me like I was a total retard, and the entire class laughed. I laughed too, but I wasn't really laughing. They didn't know I was being for real, that was something I was shooting for. I just didn't know how to get there."
In the summer of 1994, after finishing his freshman year, he got his first major acting gig--thanks to Bonnett. "We hadn't been talking after I graduated from Franklin," he says. "I think Ms. Bonnett was mad at me 'cause I had been such a knucklehead. But then she tracked me down, calling my old friends to find my phone number to tell me that she had got a call from an agent and they were looking for a guy like me--a young black male--to play in an industrial film."
He auditioned and got the role. "It was a film for young children, about how you have to tell the truth--you know, the sort of thing they show in school. No one I know saw it. But I got $4,300. I thought I was a big star. Boy, was I wrong."
Over the next few years Green managed to win a few more roles. In 1996 he got a part in the movie Chicago Cab. In 1997 he won a spot in a national Reebok commercial. "By the time that commercial hit I had graduated high school and was trying to pay the bills," he says. "I was working at a car wash on North Avenue. People were telling me, 'Vince, I saw your commercial, man.' But the thing is, I'm still working at that car wash, drying those cars for tips. I mean, you make money from a commercial, but it's not enough to keep you going. You can't understand the humility of this experience. I mean, sometimes I was so afraid of people recognizing me. I had this commercial, and everyone expected me to be a millionaire. One day I was drying off this friend's car and he said, 'Hey, Vince, what you doin' workin' at a car wash when you got a commercial on TV?' That was like an atomic bomb going off in my life, man. That was the most humiliating experience."
His life, he says, was like a dance routine. For every step forward--he won a spot on a commercial for Coca-Cola, a cameo on ER--he took a step back. He enrolled in cosmetology school and got kicked out for getting into a fight. He quit the car wash and took a job cutting hair at a barbershop near Cabrini.
Then in the fall of 1999 he got his big break. "My agent called to tell me, 'Guess what? You're Snookie!' Man, when I got that call I jumped into the air. I mean, I screamed and yelled, 'I'm in a movie, I'm in a movie!' Something I said I would do years ago--something that had made all those kids laugh--was true."
The movie's an interracial love story set in a Chicago high school, and Snookie's one of the leading man's best friends--the comic foil, the guy who gets off the funniest wisecracks. "I improvised about 95 percent of Snookie's lines," says Green. "Thomas Carter [the director] loved it. That was all improv, man--the improv I learned in class with Ms. Bonnett."
Since the movie's premiere last December, Green appeared in Hardball and has acted in a few commercials, but stardom remains elusive. "I still cut the hair," he says. "I still have to pay the bills. People think you make a lot of money in a movie. But you don't make as much as they think, and I spent a lot of it on things I've always wanted. I feel confident. I feel I'm on the right track. People have seen my skills. It's a slow-motion thing. I get calls. I audition. It will happen."
In the last few months he's become something of a regular at his old grade school, returning at Bonnett's request to lead workshops and give motivational talks. "Every day I see talented kids who remind me of myself," he says. "They're acting up. They're looking for laughs. They live in the neighborhood. Drama can get them out. I try to tell them, 'You've got to have direction and discipline. Listen to Ms. Bonnett. Don't be like me.'"
At a recent workshop he led a group of 15 fourth graders through an exercise in which they stood in a circle, clapping hands with the kids next to them. While they clapped, one student called out the name of another student. Whoever's name was called had to repeat his or her name, then call out another student's name. Kids who stopped clapping, missed a beat, or said "ugh" or "uhm" or "oops" had to sit down. Green moved around the circle, cracking jokes, most of which sailed far above the heads of the children, though Bonnett and the few other adults in the room laughed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said in the glib voice of a game-show host after one kid had to leave the circle. "We've got some nice consolation prizes."
Bonnett says games like this helped Green hone his talent. "The dramatic arts allow children to self-actualize--to develop their voice and discover who they are and to be brave in a safe environment," she says. "They learn to work in a team. They learn tolerance. You're working with a person that you may or may not like, but you have to tolerate your differences because you're pursuing a common goal."
Unfortunately, she says, the dramatic arts are not a priority in the public schools. "Very few schools in Chicago--less than ten, actually--have a full-time drama teacher. You might have the language arts having the kids put on a play, but that's about it. It's sad."
Bonnett wanted to show other teachers how to use drama in their classrooms, so she organized the Children's Theatre Creative Drama Conference, to be held at Franklin on October 20. It's sponsored by the Illinois Theatre Association and will begin with a speech by Daniel J. Travanti, onetime star of Hill Street Blues. Workshops follow, led by actors from several local theater companies, including Lookingglass, Steppenwolf, Redmoon, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Second City, and Northlight. (For more information call 773-509-1410.)
Green will lead a 1 PM workshop on improv. "What else would it be?" he says. "I've been blessed, but I know there are other kids just like me out there. We have to reach them before we lose them forever."
Studs Hits the Sulzer
No officials were on hand to greet Studs Terkel when he went to the Sulzer Regional Library last Friday, and the library's security guards didn't seem to recognize his face or his name or his trademark red checkered shirt and rumpled hat.
Ron Roenigk, publisher of the local Inside, greeted Terkel in the lobby. Roenigk has been persona non grata at Sulzer since August, when Inside started hammering library commissioner Mary Dempsey for removing thousands of books from its shelves. Dempsey called it a routine "weeding." Roenigk and other local library users called it a senseless purge.
Terkel, who's 89, read about it in the papers and despite all the other things going on in his life--he's just published a new book--he called reporters to offer his protest. They printed his quotes, and Dempsey responded by writing him an angry letter, demanding that he apologize to the librarians he'd insulted.
Dempsey's letter, Terkel concedes, was a nifty, if disingenuous, bit of jujitsu. "I wasn't criticizing the working librarians--this has nothing to do with them," he explained as he stood in the lobby. "They didn't remove the books. My God, I love librarians."
He walked through the magnetic-code gate and stood by the circulation counter. The guard at the gate eyed him suspiciously.
"This is a beautiful library," said Terkel as he scanned the front reading rooms. "I've never been here before, but I wanted to see it."
He'd thought about bringing a tape recorder to interview Sulzer's librarians but decided not to. "I figured they'd be too afraid for their jobs to speak openly," he said.
He headed toward the stairs. "It was a librarian who introduced me to Huckleberry Finn," he said. "That was back at a branch on West Madison. I'm sure it's long gone. That was over 70 years ago."
As he walked up the stairs, another guard approached. "Do you have a camera?" she asked Terkel.
Terkel shook his head, and the guard moved away.
"That guard already asked me if I had a camera," I said.
"And she told me not to take any pictures when I first walked into the building," said Roenigk, who had a camera strapped around his neck.
"Has this been going on since the attacks?" Terkel asked.
"You mean September 11?" said Roenigk.
Roenigk shook his head. "This has nothing to do with public safety," he said. "This is about what happens if you criticize Mary Dempsey. The funny thing is, we used to take publicity shots in here all the time, and they never used to complain."
At the top of the stairs a third guard appeared. "Do you have a camera?" he asked Terkel, who looked surprised to be asked again.
"Do you know who this is?" I asked the guard. "This is Studs Terkel. He's one of Chicago's great authors. You have his books in this very collection."
The guard shrugged. "I was told there was a man with a camera," he said. "There are no pictures allowed in the library."
The two librarians behind the periodicals desk, who had to have seen Terkel, didn't say anything, didn't even acknowledge him.
Terkel went to the hardcover fiction section, looking for Twain. The collection, which took up less than half of one shelf, included three Connecticut Yankees, three Huckleberry Finns, two Tom Sawyers, one Innocents Abroad, three Pudd'nhead Wilsons, and an anthology of stories.
"They hit fiction the hardest," said Roenigk. "We still don't know what they took or how many. The thing is, this is a regional library--it's bigger than a neighborhood branch. You need multiple copies of the classics. Every time a neighborhood branch needs a book they're going to try to get one from Sulzer."
Terkel thumbed through the pages of the anthology and found the story he was looking for. "At least they have one copy of 'The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,'" he said. He read the opening lines and returned the book to the shelf. "What a shame," he sighed. "I understand weeding goes on, but throwing out so many books--"
As he headed toward the stairs a guard watched him walk by the periodicals. In the front lobby two other guards watched as he walked by the checkout counter, through the vestibule, and out the door. He'd come and he'd left, and no one but the security guards had paid any attention.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.