Watch Out Broadway
- By Tom Keating
- April 1st, 2008
Imagine 20 middle schoolers — seventh and eighth graders — practicing for a spring dramatic performance in a suburban Atlanta. Not unusual, unless these boys and girls are performing the first skit in America about public school restrooms. That is unique.
Yet, in April and May 2007, in Clayton County, GA, selected Babb middle school students, an outstanding teacher, and Project CLEAN wrote, rehearsed, performed, and filmed a DVD about public school restrooms.
How did the topic of school restrooms — a national disgrace in America — go from a nasty little secret into a 20-minute skit (since performed for hundreds of students and educators from Clayton County to Calcutta, India?)
The Story of “True Dat”
The original idea for a performance came after Project CLEAN, a service dedicated to improve public school restrooms, which I founded in 1996, had experienced restroom conditions in metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Wilmington (DE), Los Angeles, and Huntsville (AL).
While visiting New York City during the aftermath of 9/11, my wife and I had seen the successful Broadway production of Urinetown. I remember thinking I should do some type of performance on school restrooms. Later, Georgia State Representative Kathy Ashe, her top staffer, and I saw the same play in Atlanta during a legislative session (where we unsuccessfully tried to pass state standards for restrooms).
The title for the skit came while I sat with four students in Glasgow High School in Delaware. A young lady said ‘true dat,” while talking with her chums. I had not heard the phrase, and she, plus three excellent students at Babb Middle School, in Clayton County, GA, explained and even acted out how teens used the phrase “true dat” — that is true. We had a title.
The phrase for the skit’s key question, “Can’t You See the Writing on the Wall?” came from my attempt to have a songwriter compose some verses. When we didn’t agree on the philosophical emphasis in the words, the artists and I split amicably. The question received reinforcement, when a friend, Lucy Monge reminded me about the Book of Daniel, the handwriting, and dreams. Pundits used the phrase dealing with the Iraqi war. We had a refrain with buzz.
We needed actors, a writer, a director, a venue, and a producer. They all came together under the building leadership of Ms. Felicia Brown and Mr. Derrick Thomas, principal and assistant principal at Babb Middle School. We received some support from our business-in-education partner, Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc.
Yet, the glue, the energy, the motivating force was the outstanding teacher, Melissa Colon, no pun intended. Melissa is a health and dance teacher who inspires middle school young adults. “Herding cats” is a mild euphenism for the reality of leading seventh and eighth graders after school for six weeks from audition to performance. We had a venue, and especially a leader.
Ms. Colon and the 20 seventh and eighth graders started from scratch. They brainstormed about school restrooms conditions, wrote a 20-page, double-spaced script, selected a gym lobby for the venue, used a movable chalk board and desks to create scenes (a brilliant suggestion by a banker, no less), and focused the 20-minute skit on two main issues plus suggestions for improvement. We had a skit — “True Dat.” No mean accomplishment.
Every movie or play needs a poster — a visual which captures the title — be it “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Cats,” etc. An actual restroom at Babb — doorless and without toilet paper or dispenser — provided the picture. We had a poster.
Then, we took it to another notch. The play was special enough that the producer, Project CLEAN, knew we needed a visual record. We contracted a professional filmmaker to capture the dress rehearsal and main performance. Filming recorded the creation of releases, rehearsals, scheduling, occurrences of camera shyness, sound issues, and other developments that needed to be overcome. In the end, we had a nine-minute DVD entitled “ True Dat: The Making of a Skit About Public School Restrooms.”
The skit itself focuses in the first scene on boys urinating on the wall, a second scene on girls writing unseemly graffiti, and a third scene on how teachers, parents, and school administrators need to help students. The nine-minute DVD shows how engaging student comments, listening to the teacher’s insights, showing actual scenes from the dress rehearsal and opening night, presenting parent and board member comments, and the inclusion of a super-imposed checklist make this film a dramatic teaching tool.
Young people are hungry for better restrooms. A creative, schedule-sensitive, focused, contemporary skit about restrooms with a copyrighted poster, script, and DVD, can be used with 5th to 12th graders throughout the country.
In fact, the package of materials has been successfully viewed in Renfroe Middle School in Decatur, GA, at an assembly of students and school leaders, and uses as a discussion vehicle in health classes. Meetings of organizations like FCCLA (Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America) have shown the DVD. Health teachers, physical education teachers, and coaches have used the materials about the skit at in-service training meetings. Two high school coaches were so moved from the DVD, they returned to their school and scrubbed the restroom and are using the DVD for health class instruction.
In Calcutta, students, faculty, and administrators in Podar International School, had a special assembly and viewed the materials. The World Toilet Summit in New Delhi has acknowledged Project CLEAN’s work and the skit.
U.S. school administrators are aware of the restroom issues. Their rhetoric is that students have to buy into better restrooms before they can be improved. Yet, too many school staffs concentrate on the two to 10 percent of students who are causing problems.
We should channel the energies of student users and the 40 percent of middle and high school students who avoid the restrooms. We should encourage creative student generated art, discussion sessions, skits, media center references, and writing on a full range of issues. “True Dat” is one approach among many.
If your school restrooms need improvement why not try something? My experience is that students are starved for safe, clean, and hygienic restrooms. The sentiment of one student actor, Montavious Harris (who plays Dominic,) sums it up, “Who knows, we can take this skit far. We can send a message all over the country. So, we’ll see.” True Dat.
Dr. Tom Keating is the coordinator of Project CLEAN. He produced “True Dat”, the copyrighted poster, script, and DVD, which are available for use in schools. He can be reached at www.project-clean.com.