Elm Shakespeare Company Producing Director Rebecca Goodheart stood in front of a crowd of about 30 at Highville Charter School on Monday night to talk about her sobering takeaway from Stephen Dest’s film I Am Shakespeare, which tells the story of Henry Green.
In Green’s case, Goodheart said, “it was not enough” that the Newhallville-born Green had played Tybalt in Elm Shakespeare’s 2009 production of Romeo and Juliet. His exposure to the arts had given him an outlet for his talent and the forging of a possible path to college. He had ended up gangbanging anyway, and very nearly died as a result. “As someone who has built my life on the premise” that art education matters, Goodheart said, “I have to say it’s really troubling. How do we do more? How do we do it better?”
Those questions were at the heart of a discussion headed by Dest, Goodheart, and Raphael Massie, who is directing Elm Shakespeare’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, after a screening of I Am Shakespeare at Highville. Dest’s harrowing film consists of a lengthy, engrossing interview with Green as he tells the story of his double life growing up in Newhallville. He was an actor of obvious talent and did well in school (Dest first met Green when Dest was a teacher at Betsy Ross Magnet School and Green a student there). He was also a criminal, occasionally a violent one, and ended up gunned down in Newhallville as a result. In I Am Shakespeare, Green tells his story with candor, a little humor, and a lot of self-excoriation, especially as he details the decisions that led to his shooting and the hard road of physical, mental, and emotional recovery that followed — a road that he is still walking. (Read the Indy’s review of I Am Shakespeare here.)
As Elm Shakespeare readied its current production of Romeo and Juliet and sought ways to reach deeper into the New Haven community, Goodheart explained, a screening and discussion of I Am Shakespeare was an obvious fit.
“I chose Romeo and Juliet because of the violence and divisiveness in the world today,” Goodheart said. To her, Romeo and Juliet exemplified “beauty and love and hope within a world of dysfunction and chaos.”
But Green’s role as Tybalt in 2009 also proved frighteningly apt. In the film, Green — who is currently in Washington, D.C. recovering from a latest round of surgery, but should return to the New Haven area soon — mentioned that as he dug into the language and got to know his character, it seemed as thought Tybalt was reading from his own diary.
And as Massie put it, “Tybalt is the through-line of the violence in the play.” He is in every fight onstage, right up until his death.”
So the discussion quickly became urgent. Dest explained that he interviewed Green over four 12-hour days in the library at Creative Arts Workshop, and “nothing about how I structured it is comfortable,” from the two close camera angles that make up the movie to the depths of Green’s candor in telling his story, from his shame of being poor, to contemplating suicide, to his descriptions of the encounter that led to his shooting.
For Dest, making the movie, and getting to know Newhallville better, had been humbling. As deep as Green dug, for Dest it was only the beginning of talking about the many larger issues the film brings up. “The information they have is far greater than any information I will get,” Dest said of Green and his family, who he got to know in the course of making the film, and who were protective of Green.
“No producer has ever given me a harder time than Henry’s mom,” Dest said.
The sense of responsibility to the story — Dest explained that his primary objective in making the film was to “stay out of Henry’s way” — has extended to Dest’s and Green’s plans for the film since it had its premiere in May and a screening at this year’s New Haven Documentary Film Festival. Screenings at a few more festivals are planned. But the typical path of distribution, Dest said, is at least several months away.
“It’s really important with a film like this that we keep it in a room like this for as long as we can,” Dest said, “especially now that Henry’s feeling better.” He meant that screenings should be followed by discussions, possibly with Green or with himself. Dest was also developing a curriculum to accompany the film to guide discussions afterward.
But who should be in that room? The sense of urgency from the audience grew. A couple audience members agreed that police needed to see I Am Shakespeare to help them better understand the communities they serve. The Yale School of Medicine is planning to incorporate the film into its course for first-year medical students to underline the importance of dealing with the patient as a person. Schools needed to see the film too, audience members said, though there a guided discussion was more important than ever.
The film, Dest said, was intended to be “a spark. It’s not the end of the fire. It’s the beginning.”
But as the conversation circled back to the role the arts can play in dealing with social problems, Goodheart’s question hung in the air. Is arts education enough?
For a couple audience members, the shock in Green’s story was one of recognition. One audience member talked about how she, like Green, had once gone after someone in revenge for beating up a sibling.
“I was amazed at how familiar everything he said was to me as a black man growing up in New Haven,” Massie said. “I think it starts with ‘How can we understand what happens in these communities?’”
Another audience member told Goodheart to take heart. Maybe getting involved in theater hadn’t kept Green away from violence. But it had worked for her.
“I know Henry’s world. I grew up in Henry’s world, and by the grace of my parents, I saw that there was so much more. Sometimes, yes, it does work, and it can set kids free — but we have to talk about access.”
Massie picked up on that point, and the sense of isolation that Green described, of Newhallville from the rest of the city, and even the divisions within the neighborhood itself. “We have to ask why all these communities are so separate,” he said.
The questioning nature of the discussion led back to Green’s own line in I Am Shakespeare, that in a sense it was getting shot and almost dying that saved his life. In the film, it came across as a moment of redemption. But Massie highlighted the desperation beneath it.
“How does it get to the point where a bullet is a young man’s salvation?” he said.