By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Mykell Richardson and Taylor Phillips-McKay.
Dorsey High School drama teacher Jamal Speakes has created a high school musical, and it’s not something you’d see from Disney. The theme reflects a real issue students face in Los Angeles — violence between blacks and Latinos. It’s gotten rave reviews from the mayor of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times, and has been featured on CBS News.
“I lost a lot of students to gang violence, and it’s really devastating to see a kid on Friday and not see that kid on Monday,” says Speakes, a United Teachers Los Angeles member. “Year after year, it was part of the environment and the culture of the neighborhood. I felt like I had to do something.”
So he wrote the script for Phi’la The Musical!, a story about an African American teenager who moves from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and falls in love with a Latina girl at his school. It is a modern-day West Side Story with plenty of hip-hop. It’s also somewhat autobiographical, as Speakes moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles after college.
Some of his friends wrote songs for Phi’la, including Lindsay Walker, daughter of Brenda Russell, songwriter for The Color Purple, and Grammy-nominated musician Mike Jackson.
When the show was performed at Dorsey in 2008, city leaders took notice and kicked in some in-kind funding. The following year he opened up auditions for Phi’la citywide. Students performed at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, and the city paid for 1,500 students to be bused in from throughout the area to see the show for free. That same cast performed in August this year at the NAACP Theatre Festival held at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
The show is taking a hiatus while Speakes works to develop a script for a film based on the musical, as well as an educational component tied with school workshops. The drama teacher has founded the Speakes 4 Them Foundation to pay for an after-school arts program to help students deal with social, racial and prejudice issues.
“We’re focused on taking this to the next level,” says Speakes. “I’d like to see Hollywood Boulevard shut down and have this premiere at the El Capitan Theater with a bunch of kids screaming and yelling. This appeals to kids, and they listen to the message when music is involved.”
Students say they are, indeed, listening.
“This show relates to Los Angeles youth today, because everybody knows somebody who has lost someone, or knows someone who has gotten shot due to gang violence. It’s sad,” relates Mykell Richardson, 17, an ensemble cast member. “The message of this show is that different ethnic groups can come together and get along.”
Speakes says that his cast members of African American and Latino students have become a family of sorts, which proves that they are more alike than different.
“Kids don’t just wake up hating each other,” says Speakes. “This type of behavior is learned from the older generation. I know this play isn’t an end-all, be-all when it comes to solving our problems, but hopefully it serves as a conversation starter for evoking change in our community.”