Laney student performance calls for better public education

Claressa Morrow, standing tall and straight on stage in a black pantsuit with a purple and black silk jacket, her feet strapped into high heeled, patent leather mary-janes, does not bring to mind the dusty fields of 1930s Texan farms. Her expressive hands and rich, cultured voice do not leave the impression of a childhood of scrimping and saving — pennies and nickels at a time — in order to stay focused on getting an education.

But Morrow’s story tells of all of this and more.

Morrow is 79 and her life story spans three generations of children looking for an education. There is her generation, raised during the depression as the children of poor farmers and the great-grandchildren of freed slaves. There is the generation of her own children, whom she taught as an elementary school teacher in San Lorenzo for thirty-six years. And now there is the generation she is working with for the Fusion Theater production “The Miseducation of Oakland” which will debut at Laney College Theater this weekend.

Morrow sits in a big red chair on the small stage in the Laney College Theater. Behind her, in a semi-circle on multi-colored classroom chairs, sit the rest of the performers. Most of them are college-aged, but a few are older. The director, Michael Torres, is well known in the Bay Area theater scene as a founding member of the San Francisco-based theater company Campo Santo. Professor Jackie Graves, co-creator of the show’s concept, says that many people in the class are here just to work with Torres, who chairs the Laney College Theater Department. He is giving all of his students his full attention as they stand up one-by-one to tell their own story or perform one of the collected stories.

“Step up to the mic!” he calls to a woman telling the story of being placed in boring classes in high school.

“What was that?” he asks a man who mumbled the end of his sentence. “This interview could be on the chopping block if you don’t pronounce that clearly!”

He gives little instruction to Morrow, a practiced storyteller, except to adjust where she’s standing or when she should sit. Morrow speaks about having thirty students in her classroom back in the seventies and listening to each one of them read every day. She wonders if the same attention is paid in classrooms today. Offstage, Morrow said the number one problem with education today is that “education in the US is not given the priority, especially in poor and urban communities. There is not a real desire to fund education.”

It was the poor education that many students seemed to have received before starting at Laney, the two-year downtown Oakland community college, that brought Graves to the oral history project that would become “The Miseducation of Oakland.”

In 2005, Laney College received a Strengthening Pre-College Education in Community Colleges (SPECC) grant from the Carnegie Foundation. The grant was meant to help professors at the college take a step back from their classes and explore some of the broader issues and challenges facing their students. In addressing and understanding these broader issues, the grant aimed to allow professors to devise unique solutions for students struggling with basic skills.

“There was this one teacher who said, ‘I have these students who always come late,'” said Graves, who has taught creative writing, basic reading, African American literature and a variety of other courses in her six years as a professor at Laney College. “Instead of just offering a quick solution, like, ‘Give a quiz at the beginning of class,’ we asked clarifying questions to understand the root of the problem. It helps to isolate one thing, like lateness, because it leads to all these other, connected things that give us a deeper understanding of who our students are and how best to serve them.”

The SPECC grant resulted in “lots of little seeds that were planted and groups talking to each other that never did,” Graves said. For example, the school now offers “Carpenteria Fina,” a course that combines English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction with instruction in woodworking, or fine carpentry.

For her part, Graves said the grant work inspired her to have students in her basic reading course collect oral histories from family and friends about their experiences with reading. The students pushed her, though, to consider an even wider topic: education in Oakland, and the ways they and their family and friends interacted with the education system as they grew up in Oakland. This push, together with conversations with instructors engaged in the Carnegie Grant, led to the creation of a new class, Community Voices, in spring of 2008.

Meanwhile, Fusion Theater, a joint effort of Graves and Torres was being born. Fusion Theater combined the creative writing efforts of Graves’ writing students with the performing talents of Torres’ theater production students. When Graves started reading the oral histories her reading students were turning in, she and Torres knew what their next project would be.

Between the reading classes and the Community Voices classes, Graves’ students collected over 500 pages of oral histories from each other in 2008, and friends and family in the Oakland community. Claressa Morrow was one of those students. She said she had signed up because, “I do storytelling, and I always need to enhance my skills.”

When the ream of oral histories was handed to Torres this August, Morrow’s story rose to the top. Torres asked her to be in the performance as the narrator of her own story. She accepted.

On Friday night her story will be woven together with many others: of a Tongan-American woman, Analatai Fisiiahi, whose father, a landscaper, told her to work hard in school so that she wouldn’t have to work hard on other people’s lawns; of a Chinese-American woman, Rona Yee, who was encouraged by her immigrant parents to attend summer Upward Bound camps at Mills College and who went on to graduate from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts; of David Mullen, an African American man whose story is performed by Jonathan Williams, who once worried to his mother that the kids were teasing him for his dark skin. Her advice? “Be proud, because it is better than being ashamed.”

Torres says that what he has enjoyed most, after the process of putting together the project, has been “seeing what student actors are learning – what they think about education. Many of them are saying, ‘The problem is within us. We need to be more self-motivated.’”

In one of the most moving moments of the show, Morrow bows her head after describing her great-grandmother’s emancipation from slavery in Texas. She begins to sing an old Negro spiritual from the days of her great-grandmother’s struggle for freedom. As her voice rises to fill the small theater, three young women step up behind her and join in, blending their young voices, full of hope, with hers.

Performance information: Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St, Oakland. October 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, and 31. All shows start at 8pm. Tickets $10 (Laney students, faculty and staff $5) Reserve tickets: mtorres@peralta.edu

4 Comments

  1. Desirena Roberts

    There’s a typo. Jonathan Williams isn’t talking about his own mother, this is a quote by David Mullen, from his interview that I conducted. It was Mr Mullen’s own mother who told him to be proud and not ashamed of his dark skin. Please correct this as Mr Mullen’s story is very powerful. He was teased by his black classmates because his skin color was darker than their own.

  2. Lillian R. Mongeau Post author

    Thanks Desirena,
    I’ve fixed it. You also make the good point that I hope was clear in the article that some people tell their own stories and others perform stories that come from the collected oral histories. It’s hard sometimes for the viewer to know which. Torres told me this would be easier at the actual performance because of some cool stagecraft, but it’s interesting that it’s so hard to tell… It makes you think: we really aren’t all that different from each other, are we, if we can’t even tell whose story belongs to whom?
    -Lillian

  3. Lillian

    Thank you for this article. Small error: my mother, Claressa, is 79!!
    Also, it wasn’t quite clear that she didn’t home teach her own children. She taught children our age in San Lorenzo.

    Thanks,
    Lynne Morrow

  4. Lillian R. Mongeau Post author

    Lynne,
    Thanks! I had a hard time verifying Claressa’s age – it has been corrected above.
    -Lillian

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