What You Need To Know:
(H, C, V, LLL, M) Humanist worldview that makes the love and acceptance of good friends a "savior", and one of the student's mother makes comments about faith in the Lord; about 30 curse words [including seven "f" words and two "GDs"], teacher uses "lighter" curse words in front of children, one young man puts it simply, "F*** the world," and one of the more depressed boys mentions that he found the pain of his tongue piercing pleasing; girl says that her mother was a prostitute, dropped the girl off with a baby sitter and didn't come back, "but I am a normal person"; and, several stories of parental abandonment, one girl has learned from the abandonment incidents and swears that she is "hell-bent" on having a real dad for her children so she won't engage in premarital sex, boy speaks of being surrounded by suicide (his best friend gave up and hung himself), and other kids speak of choosing not to remember the murders and suicides.
OT: OUR TOWN is a documentary about a teacher and students that perform the first live stage play at Dominguez High School, in notorious Compton, California, in 20 years. Catherine Borek is an English teacher. She notices a regular cycle of behavior every year leading up to graduation: homecoming, riots, prom, then graduation ceremonies. The most important program at the school is basketball. In fact, one of Dominguez High’s young men was drafted to the NBA immediately after graduation.
Borek decides to try to add some culture to the mix to see if it might help those students hopelessly trapped in the cycle. The play she chooses is OUR TOWN, written in the 1930s by Thornton Wilder. The place takes place in 1903. You may have seen a version of it on television with Hal Holbrook and Robbie Benson. There are clips from that particular production interspersed throughout the documentary to introduce the various teenagers and their own lives and perceptions of their lives in late 1998. Viewers are led through the thoughts, lives, and homes of many of the children that make up Borek’s English classes and play cast. The audience sees evidence of the curses of child abandonment, premarital sex, fatherlessness (separate physical and emotional incidents), and gang violence. They also see evidence of the Christian faith of past generations, determination to stop the cyclical curses of the “‘hood,” and hope built through relationships and camaraderie.
As her students begin to work through the script, they fail to see how a play concerning a 1903, rural, all white farm town could ever relate to them – 1998, urban, minority, “gangland.” Many of them scoff at the outdated language and customs. A few threaten to drop out. As their work progresses, they update the language and some of the settings. They begin to realize that they are not so different from the people in the play. They have to deal with the same issues and emotions that all humans do. Their town has the same kind of characters and situations as any other town throughout time. Humans are humans no matter where you go and no matter what time you live in history. As a quote from the play says, “We are born, we live, we love, and we die.”
The question throughout the film is, Will the students be able to pull the play off without a budget, a stage, and the support of the rest of the school? Will many of the cast find the work emotionally fulfilling enough to stick with it? Will anyone come to see the play? Will they memorize their lines?
Although OT seems to exalt the arts as Savior, there is a lot to be said for the introduction of cultural programs to our youth. One of the teenagers explains that they had not been involved in any little groups, they knew no one, their school mates were just faces and names – they don’t like being around people. The play helps them to unite with a group of unique individuals working toward a common goal that, in the end, may mean something to their own town’s people as they understand the theme, or moral, of the play. This is a very worthwhile movie to see for both teenagers and adults, especially for those who have given up on the youth of the “inner-cities.” These aren’t just the children of Compton, California, they are our children…Compton is OUR TOWN.