Underground Railroads: Performance and Community at the Underground Railroad Theater's Youth Program

By Abdow, Maggie Moore | Radical Teacher, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Underground Railroads: Performance and Community at the Underground Railroad Theater's Youth Program


Abdow, Maggie Moore, Radical Teacher


This article is based on an interview with Maggie Moore Abdow, director of the Underground Railroad Theater's Youth Program (Cambridge MA) since 2004, and her summary of that exchange. The interview (11/3/2009) was conducted by Saul Slapikoff, member of Radical Teacher's editorial group and former board member of URT. The theater was founded in Oberlin, Ohio. Its name honors the fact that Oberlin was one of the last stops on the Midwestern Branch of the Underground Railroad. Active for some 30 years, URT has a history of outreach to underserved families, with shows for young audiences, families, and adults performed across the United States and internationally. Its Community and Education Program functions through performance and rigorous community and education programming. (The cluster editors)

Collaboration is never easy, and all the more so when it aims to bring controversial issues to public attention. For the young people involved in the Underground Railroad Theater's Youth Program (Youth Underground) in Cambridge, MA, the challenge is also to find ways of positioning themselves in relation to their families, communities, and schools, especially as they, and many in their audience too, may be exploring and grappling with the very issues raised in their performances. Inevitably, these young people face new and often unanticipated challenges, putting themselves on the fine. Alongside them, the challenge is also for the adults working with these youth, notably Maggie Moore Abdow as program director and Vincent Earnest Siders as teacher and drama director, working together since the program was first piloted four years ago.

This is what faced members of the Underground Railroad Theater's Youth Program and their mentors in 2008, when they set out to perform in Voices in Conflict, about the current Iraq war, and then Swords into Ploughshares in 2009, which explored historic instances of peaceful resistance. In the summer of 2009, URT's Youth Program also hosted the Palestinian Al-Rowwad cultural group--young people from Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, Palestine, who brought to the United States a theatrical production they created concerning their lives in a refugee camp in occupied Palestine.

As can be expected, the challenges for Youth Underground never let up. Each performance had its own focus and core commitment to a collaboration that would culminate in public performance, but each also faced its own contingencies. Thematically, these three projects' focus on conflicts and resolutions put them in an inspiring if painful dialogue with one another to begin with. But at times this challenge was made even more difficult because of personal circumstances such as disciplinary problems at school, loss of family members in the Haiti earthquake, and other difficulties that inevitably affect high school students, especially those from vulnerable homes and neighborhoods. Since such problems cannot be kept out of the rehearsal room, a major task facing the group was to find ways to channel differences and difficulties into powerful and coherent performance.

In Cambridge, MA, this meant negotiating neighborhood loyalties and difference--loyalties that emerge powerfully as the graduates of eleven K-8 primary schools converge on the one high school that is to serve all. In this sudden encounter, differences of class, race, ethnicity, and academic performance emerge starkly. A visit to the lunch room will show readily how Cambridge youth self-segregate into groups based on neighborhood identity: North Cambridge, Coast and Port (abutting the Charles River), East and West Cambridge, and Area 4. Except for the wealthy West Cambridge, all these ethnically diverse neighborhoods include subsidized Section 8 housing, with Area 4 the only one referred to by its police designation. Though it is understood among these young people that one does not cross neighborhood boundaries or cross-socialize in class, the Youth Underground, especially through its summer program, does create a neutral territory that lets these young people continue their relationships outside of the theater and in school. …

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