By Sikivu Hutchinson
Melanie Andrews is the director of the internationally acclaimed Washington Prep High School theatre program in South Los Angeles. A native of Compton, California, she received her MFA in theatre from the University of Southern California and has worked as a director in China, Germany, Canada, and Mexico, as well as at regional theatres in the U.S. A documentary on the Washington Prep theatre program’s Shakespeare in Watts (a rendition of Romeo and Juliet) production is screening on Sunday, February 17th at Los Angeles’ Pan African Film Festival. Dr. Andrews is also a teacher-partner for the L.A. County Human Relations Commission’s Washington Involving Neighborhoods program and Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ 2013 scholarship fund.
What is your background in theatre?
I got into theatre by accident. I was a state champion debater for Compton Unified. As part of a work study program in high school I got a job at the Ebony Showcase theatre (now the Nate Holden Company) in South L.A. I started with the production Norman is That You (with Redd Foxx and John Amos). The girl that was playing a prostitute had an accident and I decided I would fill in for the part. I got the laughs and fit the suit and that is how I got the part. I was also encouraged by Ethel Waters when I performed at the Pasadena Playhouse. I taught at CSULB, Compton College, and Emory University in Atlanta. I am also involved in using the arts for the peace movement and human rights, especially as it pertains to human/sexual trafficking and violence against women. For the past several years I’ve been engaged with helping girls and women understand the impact of prostitution and sexual trafficking in local communities of color from a black feminist perspective.
What is the climate of local youth theatre in South L.A.? Washington Prep is the little school that could. We have won over forty awards in theatre competition. I found kids that were hungry to do theatre. I’m classically trained and have brought that training to this school. It’s not necessarily in line with the norm of high school drama. Some of our acclaimed productions have been Zoot Suit and Positive Secrets, a drama on HIV/AIDS based on the voices and experiences of youth of color. We also mounted ‘Stop” a production on the sex trafficking of girls. We won five awards at the California State festival. Our other claim to fame is that 90% of the students involved in this program go to four year universities like Fordham, NYU, UCLA, etc. This program has boosted their academic success and college matriculation prospects.
What other productions are in the works? Unfortunately, none of our productions are being funded. We don’t necessarily have the support of the administration. We’ve been told that our stuff is “nice” but that it doesn’t make money. The school has decided to go in a more “hip hop” direction. We got zero funding for Black History month. Like many teachers I’ve had to go into my own pocket to fund these productions. However, I believe these productions are necessary for students to know the Eurocentric canon in order to survive, navigate higher education and be culturally literate. Our students will be able to perform in different contexts and know their craft. Several years ago, I realized we had an excess of talent and a dearth of funding and that’s why I partnered with the British Academy program. I’ve had the pleasure of working at numerous Shakespeare festivals (in fact, I’m one of the few African Americans that has worked as a stage manager, dramaturge, actor and director for virtually every Shakespeare play in the Folio). The cast of Romeo and Juliet was mentored by members of the BA program. The students were able to learn the language of Shakespeare from actors that were immersed in it. They also received training from actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company. These professionals saw them as being important and the students lived up to those expectations. Now we have over one-hundred mentors.
What is the most rewarding part of working with youth at Washington Prep and how can the community help with this work? Having them in class you get to see that everything that exists in the microcosm of the community exists here too. Everyone has a “heart light”—you just need someone to turn it on. In theatre we activate it with high academic expectations and the students rise to the challenge. They start going to class, they become community activists, they learn that they have power, and they demand things. Most of our kids are now in the top ten of their classes. They are focused on college, realizing that they not only have a future, but that they have a gift. So I welcome community members who can come and be mentors. We have costumes to design and sets to build. We need fundraisers, we need sets painted, and most of all we need the kids to be supported. We have kids in foster care, kids who are homeless and surfing on couches, and we have kids that are dealing with the random death of loved ones. Sometimes in rehearsals we’ll deal with death, rape, and other hard issues and they are able to connect their life experience with that. Romeo and Juliet is so real to them because they are living through it. I grew up in Compton. My father was murdered when I was young, and because of your mother, Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, and others guiding me I made it through that. Teachers like her told me what a difference I could make. I could have become suicidal or a drug addict. I’ve had multiple careers, but I come back to teaching because we are needed more now than ever. My students have gone on to be professionals in theatre, film, business, and politics and that is one of my greatest rewards.