Seventh grader Delali is not your typical theater kid. In class and with friends, she is soft-spoken and shy. At the recent Shakespeare Smackdown, however, she commanded the audience, delivering her lines in a clear, emphatic voice and making the crowd laugh as she threw herself across the stage with two classmates.
This citywide competition with the Classic Stage Company underscores the transformation Harlem Academy students undergo.
“I get stage fright sometimes,” Delali says, “but I like pushing myself out of my comfort zone.”
Like all Harlem Academy middle schoolers, she has been studying a different Shakespeare play each year since sixth grade. Intimidated at first by the language, she watched older students embracing it – not just in the classroom, but in performances and at the annual competition that Harlem Academy students keep winning.
“Shakespeare is by far the most difficult text that they face at Harlem Academy,” explains Middle School English Teacher Whitney Wood, “and probably the most difficult literature they will face in high school and college. We read each line aloud as though it were a performance. The students act out key scenes – making choices for their characters, understanding their motivations. The close reading improves their comprehension, which strengthens their confidence in working with such difficult text.”
Delali agrees. “I think that Shakespeare has helped me find a deeper understanding of literature,” she says. “It’s difficult to read the language at first, but it all comes together when you act it out. You understand the characters and the story. It’s just fun.”
For the fifth consecutive year, Harlem Academy students received top honors at the competition, taking first and second place – higher than 19 other teams, most from high schools.
“The Harlem Academy student scenes were some of the strongest I have seen in my years overseeing the competition,” said Marcel Spears of the Classic Stage Company.
Shakespeare and the ShakeSmack competition have become so popular at Harlem Academy that it is now offered as an elective, giving students a chance to add an additional Shakespeare play to their curriculum. They learn their scenes for the competition, and then leverage these to produce a full play at the end of the school year.
“I coach them on basics of acting,” explains Ms. Wood, “but they are the ones who figure out their characters, their relationships, their blocking, and their physical reactions to one another. All of the creativity comes from them. The most joyful moment for me is hearing the audience genuinely responding to this. The students embody Harlem Academy’s creed, ‘I am bold and creative.’”