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Syaging a Comeback

Powerful Drama at a School Rescued From the Brink of Closing

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By Ben Joravsky

It was only a year ago that the Board of Education was vowing to shut down Lindblom High School, a venerable south-side institution, and send its students to any school that would take them.

But Lindblom's students, faculty, administrators, and alumni protested so fast and furiously that the central office was forced to relent and keep the school open.

And now, as a celebration of the school's tenacity and durability, a group of ambitious students backed by Richard Lufrano, a young English teacher, will stage August Wilson's powerful drama Two Trains Running, the first major all-student production in years.

The May 7 and 9 shows are the talk of the surrounding Englewood community; Lufrano has mailed invitations to civic groups and senior-citizen centers throughout the area. Rumor has it that Lynn St. James and Paul Vallas, the board's top two officials, will be coming, maybe even bringing Mayor Daley with them.

"These young actors are showing the city what Lindblom is all about," says Cheryl Rutherford, Lindblom's principal. "Some people may have written us off, but we're coming back strong."

In retrospect it's amazing that the board would ever have considered closing Lindblom. An imposing brick and concrete structure at the intersection of 61st and Wolcott, it was once one of the premier high schools in the city. In its prime Lindblom, which specialized in technical training, limited its enrollment to students who scored the highest on national achievement tests.

But in recent years, as many of the area's top students were drawn to schools with a greater emphasis on the liberal arts, Lindblom's reputation faltered. The school responded by broadening its curriculum and eliminating some shop requirements. But enrollment continued to fall, dropping from well over 2,000 to less than 1,000. Last year's board argued that the school wasn't worth the money needed to keep it running.

But the new board, appointed by Mayor Daley when he took over the system early last summer, decided to keep the school open. And according to school officials, enrollment is growing, in part because of the publicity generated by last year's protests. "It's about 1,000, though it seems like a million on some hectic days. And applications are up for next year," says Rutherford. "I still get upset when I think about closing this place. It didn't make sense. The building was renovated for $4.6 million in 1994, and the students are committed to keeping it open, so why close it? Why not make it great again?"

It was in part to send a new message about the school that Lufrano decided to stage a play. "There's a lot of talent here," he says. "It needs an outlet, but it's here."

Lufrano held auditions in November, and about 50 students tried out. After several callbacks, he settled on a cast of 14. "The play only has seven characters, but I wanted to have [more] kids participate," he says. "I wanted to have separate casts for each act."

From the start there were obstacles. "Some of the kids wouldn't show up for rehearsal; they thought they didn't need it," says Lufrano. "So I had to cut it back to seven."

One talented student quit because she didn't want to play a male character (there's only one female character in the play). They couldn't find the boards to build the set, nor could they replace faulty stage lights: they have no ladder tall enough to reach them. The school has no money for such a venture--all expenses came out of Lufrano's pocket.

"The set still isn't what we would like," says Lufrano. "It takes place in a restaurant, and I'd love to have a real restaurant counter, a real telephone booth, and a jukebox. That's what the stage notes call for."

So far, Lufrano and his students have received no assistance from the downtown theater community, even though almost all the major companies boast some sort of outreach program. The Goodman Theatre, which has staged several Wilson plays, including Two Trains, has been particularly disappointing.

"I called the Goodman, and they said they have a tape of their staging," says Lufrano. "I asked if we could see it, but they're giving me the runaround. I don't think they want some high school kids coming to their theater. It's a shame. These are good kids, and I know they could profit from watching that tape and just seeing what the Goodman looks like." (For its part, a Goodman spokesperson says it did make some effort to accommodate Lufrano.)

Despite the obstacles, the cast continues to rehearse almost every day. The play features Keeyana Riley, Denardo Williams, Skylar Wesby, Nathaniel St. Clair, LaVaughn Williams, Maurice Banks, and LaShawn Davis; the assistant director is Kindra Cotton, and the crew consists of Jennifer Hunt, Caleb Davis, and Handsome Coepening.

"It's been great," says LaVaughn Williams, a 16-year-old junior. "In February we did a scene for the school for Black History Month and they loved it. I walked onstage and I heard the cheering, and it kept me going for days."

For some the play is the highlight of their school career. "I tried out but didn't get cast, so I asked Mr. Lufrano if I could be the assistant director," says Cotton. "I come to every rehearsal. I know all the lines. I help feed their lines. I'm as much a part of the show as anyone. I want to get involved in my school. I don't just want to come here and go home--that's not what high school's supposed to be about."

The play takes place in a diner in a black working-class section of Pittsburgh in 1969. The characters spend much of their time bickering, pontificating, and expressing conflicting feelings of frustration and aspiration in a series of melodious monologues among the most beautiful and moving Wilson has written.

The two most memorable characters are Memphis, a hard-edged realist who believes people get what they deserve, and Holloway, who believes the white man has stacked the deck against "niggers."

"People kill me talking about niggers is lazy," Holloway says during an exchange with Memphis about another character who's out of work. "Niggers is the most hard-working people in the world. Worked three hundred years for free. And didn't take no lunch hour. Now all of a sudden niggers is lazy. Don't know how to work. All of a sudden when they got to pay niggers, ain't no work for him to do....If the white man could figure out a way to make some money by putting niggers to work, we'd all be working."

To which Memphis responds: "I still say that boy don't want to work."

The most popular character in the play is Hambone, a man of questionable sanity, still upset because a local white merchant named Lutz cheated him out of a ham nine years ago. "Lutz told him if he painted his fence he'd give him a chicken," Memphis explains. "Told him if he do a good job he'd give him a ham. He think he did a good job and Lutz didn't. That's where he went wrong--letting Lutz decide what to pay him for his work. If you leave it like that, quite naturally he gonna say it ain't worth the higher price."

In the February production Hambone drew the greatest response, drawing gales of laughter every time he bellowed, "I want my ham."

"The language in this play is so real," says St. Clair, who plays Memphis. "These are characters we recognize, people we know. Memphis is not too popular because he's so bossy. There's a part where he's talking about the black militants and he says, 'These niggers around here talking about they black and beautiful. Sound like they trying to convince themselves. You got to think you ugly to run around shouting you beautiful. You don't hear me say that. Hell, I know I look nice. Got good manners and everything.'

"Some of the kids didn't like it when he said that. I told them, that's not me talking, that's a role. You have to understand Memphis--he's proud, he works hard, he stands up for what he believes. Like him or not, people respect him. I can learn from him even if I don't agree with everything he says."

The May 7 show is at 3 PM, the May 9 at 7. "I'm a little nervous--you get that way in front of people," says LaVaughn Williams. "But I know my lines. I'll be fine."

After the shows, Lufrano plans to stage scenes at suburban high schools. "I've written letters to various schools and so far Deerfield, North Shore Country Day, and maybe Evanston want us to come," he says. "We'll meet their theater students. I want people to see what Lindblom's got to offer."

Anyone wanting to donate props for the production should call Richard Lufrano at 535-9300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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