An early rehearsal for Codman Academy’s production of “King Lear” started with warm-up exercises that many theater kids would recognize.
“The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue,” the students enunciated. “I am a mother pheasant plucker.” Then they practiced one of the tongue-twisting phrases that appears the play: “Wolfish visage,” they repeated emphatically.
In many ways, this rehearsal was just like any other high school play practice, but it was also the product of an unconventional relationship between the Huntington Theatre Company, one of Boston’s most prominent professional theaters, and Codman, a charter public school in Dorchester whose student body is mostly black, Latino, and low-income.
Meg O’Brien, the Huntington’s director of education, knew that a high school production of one of Shakespeare’s most complicated plays was a tall order. She and her colleagues strived to give the students the tools they need to execute the show: Hanging on the walls of the Huntington rehearsal studio were pronunciation guides for more obscure names like “Gloucester,” and a detailed family tree mapping out relationships between characters.
O’Brien’s team guided the students in everything from pronunciation to “translation” of classic Shakespearean innuendo. “Anytime the Fool can say ‘cocks,’ he does,” O’Brien explained to Kelvin Sisa, a rising senior at Codman who played the king’s loyal jester.
Because of the Huntington partnership, theater is not just an extracurricular or elective at Codman; it’s a requirement for all students. Since the school’s founding, ninth- and 10th-graders have needed to complete part of their studies at the Huntington, developing skills in public speaking, critical reading, and memorization.
The five-week summer Shakespeare program allows Codman students in all grades to work with Huntington theater professionals, earn a stipend, and fulfill the school’s requirement for summer enrichment activities. This summer, the cast of 19 rehearsed at least three hours a day, five days a week. The culmination of the students’ efforts was a two-hour (and that’s the abridged version) staging of one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Head of School Thabiti Brown said summer resume-building helps Codman students compete for college scholarships. Structured summer activities aren’t always an option for teenagers in low-income urban environments, who may have to take care of siblings or work to support their families financially.
Some of the young Shakespeare performers would arrive at afternoon rehearsals after working a shift at a summer job. By 4:30 p.m., when the warm-up exercises began, a few of the students looked like they could use a nap. Still, their enthusiasm and energy permeated the studio, which was notable especially since many of the actors weren’t “theater kids” in the traditional sense.
When Amber Taste-Suite, a rising junior, learned about mandatory Huntington classes in ninth grade, she was “not for it.”
“I had a hard time trying new things, and the fact that I was forced to do it made me not like it even more,” she said. But later, Taste-Suite found that she “low-key missed it.”
“I wanted to be on the stage again,” she said, recalling last summer’s show, “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Nefertitti Myers, a rising sophomore at Codman who has a summer job as a camp counselor in addition to the Huntington program, said “Shakespeare is all right, but it’s not really my type of thing. I just thought, I like acting — might as well put it to use.” In this year’s production, Myers played Oswald, the servant of one of Lear’s evil daughters.
In the titular role was the stoic Arie Dowe — a rising senior who innovated upon a part that has historically been played as an “angry old white man.”
“It almost doesn’t matter whether Lear is a man or a woman or nonbinary,” director O’Brien said. “It’s still about the power, and how he wants to give up his power at the very beginning of the show, and then doesn’t know how to let it go.”
Even if Shakespeare’s plays have universal themes, O’Brien is intentional about creating a space where Codman students can feel safe and comfortable. The Summer Theatre Institute brings an alum of the program — this year, it was Zakai Taylor-Kelley, a theater student at the College of the Holy Cross — to act as assistant stage manager.
“I’m a white woman teaching people of color, and there are things I won’t ever assume to know or understand about their life experience,” O’Brien said.
Dowe said the Codman show would be unique because of its cast, which was entirely composed of students of color. “I wanted to play someone with a lot of power,” Dowe said. “As a person of color, you see it from a different perspective, having a lot of power, because historically we haven’t.”
Matters of minority representation loom large at a school that serves mostly black and Latino students. Brown, who was a humanities teacher at Codman before he became the head of school, said he aims to find a balance between honoring the literary canon and changing it.
“We’ve been champions of expanding the canon. Our canon is August Wilson, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison. There are texts that we incorporate into our curricula that are absolutely going to have representation from all the folks that come to this school,” Brown said. “There are also these great canonical texts by dead white men that our young people still need to be exposed to, to have those conversations with their peers in lots of other places.”
When the show opened on the first of two nights at the Calderwood’s Wimberly Theatre in late July, tickets were available free of charge, and the program included a full synopsis of “King Lear.” The crowd was dwarfed by the 370-seat theater, but the small audience was filled with enthusiastic parents and less-enthusiastic small siblings.
Sophia Davis, whose daughter Jordyn will be a senior at Codman in the fall, arrived at the venue more than an hour before showtime. That earned her a shocked “Mom!” from her daughter, Davis recounted with a laugh. Throughout the two-hour show, Davis smiled and nodded along each time her child appeared onstage.
Jordyn Davis was playing Regan, one of the daughters who betrays Lear, and she convincingly portrayed the character’s twisted cruelty. Dayseanda Paul, a rising sophomore, gave a tender interpretation of the Earl of Kent. Sisa’s portrayal of the Fool, which was full of absurd gestures, showed off his comedic timing and earned the show’s biggest laughs. The inseparable trio of Jonathan Joassaint, Karel Deller, and Jason Pruittgave commendable performances as the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, Edmund and Edgar.
Dowe, dressed in a sharp suit with a bright yellow dress shirt, deftly captured the king’s spiral into madness. During intermission, the actor’s father, Dexter Dowe, said Arie had studied the script diligently at home, “book open, with the phone in the other hand.”
“You know how teenagers are,” he said.
The cast members seemed to know to step in whenever their peers faltered: There were a few awkward pauses when actors forgot their lines, but they were easily played off as contemplative moments.
When the house lights turned back on, Davis wiped tears from her eyes. Her daughter had been practicing her lines at home every day. “She studied, she did it on her own,” Davis said proudly.
Taylor-Kelley, the Codman alum who served as assistant stage manager, said working backstage that night was memorable because “you can see how nervous they are.”
“But when they’re nervous,” Taylor-Kelley added, “you know that means they care.”
After the show, the cast sporadically flowed into the lobby of the Calderwood Pavilion. With roses in hand, the students greeted family, friends, and alumni.
“Are you proud of yourself?” O’Brien asked Dowe.
“Sure,” deadpanned the teenage Lear.