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Back to School for Inspiration : How necessity and compromise turned 'The Iris Stevenson Story'--a drama about a passionately committed Crenshaw High School music teacher--into 'Sister Act 2'

December 05, 1993|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

As the end credits on "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" roll to a close, the producers extend their thanks to Iris Stevenson, whose story, they note, provided the inspiration for the film.

On the face of it, however, Stevenson bears little resemblance to the lounge-singer-turned-nun-impersonator played by Whoopi Goldberg. Nor does the movie, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, closely parallel Stevenson's life. That a script about a Crenshaw High School music teacher ended up as the sequel to Disney's blockbuster "Sister Act" testifies to the often tortuous path screenplays take wending their way to the screen.

Rewind to May, 1991, when producer Dawn Steel ("Cool Runnings") read a Los Angeles Times article about Stevenson who, with hundreds of other teachers in the L.A. public school system, was about to lose her job. Though Stevenson had three offers the day her layoff notice arrived, she was firing back--publicly and passionately--on behalf of colleagues less fortunate than she. After observing Stevenson in the classroom, Steel made up her mind: "The Iris Stevenson Story" belonged on the screen, and she would be the one taking it there.

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Raised in the projects of Buffalo, N.Y., Iris Stevenson grew up poor. Her father was a blue-collar worker with a considerable, if well-hidden, flair for keyboards. Her mother, who did "day work" cleaning other people's houses, scraped together enough to buy a miniature piano for their daughter. Young Iris was composing at 3, performing at 7 and, from seventh grade on, attended Buffalo's Villa Maria Institute, an 18-student federally funded program for young artists. At 15, Stevenson was awarded a four-year scholarship to Ohio's prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After graduation, she continued to play professionally while pursuing a teaching career that brought her to Los Angeles in 1985.

A warm, energetic woman who appears to be in her late 30s (age is the one question she plays close to the vest), Stevenson performed miracles at Crenshaw, a hardscrabble, predominantly black South-Central school with significant Latino and Asian enrollment. The number of students taking choir and band ballooned from 12 to more than 600 today. (Stevenson also teaches classes in keyboards, music theory and practical application of music.) Appearances by the school's 80-member Elite Choir on "The Arsenio Hall Show," a Lou Rawls TV special and HBO's "Chez Whoopi" brought the young singers and their teacher national recognition. Kids who had never ventured beyond the 'hood boarded airplanes for the Caribbean and France, winning the Jamaica Jazz Festival four years in a row and, performing in French, Nice's Worldwide Music Festival in 1992 and 1993.

"What sets Iris Stevenson apart is her success in a system that in no way supports her--with the hardest possible children to convert," says Steel.

Former student Robert Brown is a case in point. "I'd been ripping around the streets, ditching school, adopting a 'don't care' attitude," says the 22-year-old rap group road manager. "Going to Jamaica made me feel like a better person. A lot of this is about self-esteem."

Closer to home, Stevenson also made waves. She spent the second night of the Los Angeles riots in a recording studio, laying tracks for "The City of Fallen Angels"--a song of peace and unity she wrote with L.A. rappers Kid Frost, Young MC and Hen-Gee that received extensive play. At the recent retirement luncheon for Mayor Bradley, the choir's performance of "America the Beautiful" moved the ordinarily cool Gov. Pete Wilson to tears. "The way we sang from our hearts touched his," the teacher recalls. "He embraced me so long, his security people got nervous."

In a climate of domestic and social turmoil, Stevenson provides love and support. No distinction is made between "the lovely and the unlovely," as she puts it. Discipline is tempered by hugs. The children, whom the single, childless Stevenson treats as her own, reciprocate by calling her "Mama."

"According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child," Stevenson says. "That's the feeling I'm trying to create at Crenshaw. Calls to my home wore out four answering machines in the past eight years. The first took only 20 messages. I sometimes get that in an hour."

Valerie Weldon, 17, credits Stevenson with pulling her out of a recent depression. "My grandmother died; my boyfriend went to jail; I was shot in the stomach in a drive-by shooting," she says, drawing an imaginary circle around the point of entry. "Miss Stevenson took me aside and was tough but supportive. Things I can't take from my mother, I take from her."

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