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LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL

On the Other Side of the Curtain Now

Students see themselves in a film about their school's first play in 20 years

June 24, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The setting was a plush screening room inside the Directors Guild of America building on the drizzly first morning of the Los Angeles Film Festival, but the boisterous ambience was reminiscent of graduation day.

As soon as the lights died down, the screen and the audience erupted simultaneously in dialogue with each other. "This is the ghetto," came the soulful groan of the soundtrack, set against a familiar backdrop of police cars, palm trees and scorched lawns. Young viewers cheered and whooped in recognition. They were all students and alumni of Compton's Dominguez High School who had come to West Hollywood to watch their alma mater and their classmates in the documentary "OT: our town," shown as part of the festival.

Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, "OT" tracks 24 students and two teachers in their attempts to revive Thornton Wilder's post-Depression classic "Our Town" on a makeshift stage in their high school cafeteria. The documentary spans one month and 13 days of rehearsals for Dominguez High School's first theatrical production in 20 years. It plays like a jazzed-up version of Ulysses' "Odyssey," with cast and co-directors forced to traverse cultural chasms and scale seemingly insurmountable obstacles: a disconnect between the play, originally set in Grover's Corners, a New Hampshire provincial backwater, and the African American and Latino student population; an initial lack of support from the school board; and a budget that never inched above zero, in addition to such perils as gunshots that went off in the night, even as the camera rolled.

At the screening, audience members hollered in support as the screen lighted up with a cast of characters straight out of Compton--their Compton.

Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown was 16 when she appeared in "OT" as herself and as the play's narrator, the Stage Manager. "Sports is all that matters at this school," she says in the documentary. "That's right!" bellowed the audience back at the screen. "People say Dominguez High is ghetto. But we're not all gangbangers and hoochie mamas. We don't want to reiterate those stereotypes," Norwood-Brown tells the camera. She reveals that her real mother is a prostitute who dropped her off with a baby-sitter one day and never came back. "Never, ever," she repeats, an incredulous smile on her lips. A collective sigh floated from the audience, which turned quiet as Norwood-Brown recited on screen one of her lines in the play: "Every child born into this world is nature's attempt to make a perfect human being."

There was much laughter and delight at the sight of slides, family mementos and baby pictures that the cast members brought in as props and inspiration for the play. Archie Posada, whose character, George Gibbs, gets married in the play, is shown donning the embroidered Mexican outfit his own father wore at his wedding. "Some of the things that we put in it--we gave it a life," Norwood-Brown says on screen about "Our Town."

But despite the hilarity in the audience, "they've been very proud of 'OT, " director Hamilton Kennedy said after the screening. He admitted to butterflies in anticipation of this audience's reactions.

Jose Perez, who appears in the documentary as his 17-year-old self and as Simon Stimson, the suicidal town drunk, saw "OT" for the first time and loved it, despite the fact that he has since grown quite different from the angst-ridden young man captured on film. "I've had more than 15 people die on me in the last four years, and the last one was my best friend," he says in "OT," which showed him sitting by himself in a corner and thrashing about to the angry wails of rock band Nine Inch Nails as if banging his head against an invisible wall.

"I feel that the part fit me well," he said at a question-and-answer session with the audience after the screening. "At the time I was bitter, jaded, and I related to the death scene the most." Now 19, he displays a much sunnier disposition and recently applied for a scholarship to study business in Germany. "I never connected with anyone--except some friends --like that before; the people in the play felt like a family," Perez said, beaming at the handful of former "Our Town" actors who had joined him for the screening.

"Theater is a healing art that helps give people a voice," added Karen Greene, one of the two English teachers who co-directed and was "co-everything on the play." It was fellow teacher Catherine Borek who in spring 2000 had the idea to stage Wilder's paean to the importance of little things in life at the stageless Dominguez High School because, she explained to the assembled crowd, the play demanded no more than a few chairs in the way of a set. The idea to commit the creative exercise to film was born when Borek met director Hamilton Kennedy at a party; they ended up dating, falling in love and nurturing "OT: our town" into being.

Like the theater production it documents, the film was cobbled together with hand-me-downs from previous projects and financed out of the director's pocket. It premiered, fittingly, in the Dominguez High School cafeteria and has been screened at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, and the Tribeca festival in New York City. At last week's screening, the project gained the approval of a tough hometown audience as Dominguez High School students clapped wildly and held hands as the final sequences of "OT" cascaded on screen along with the end credits.

"We made 'Our Town' our little town," Borek says to the camera.

"It wasn't all in vain," Norwood-Brown says. "We're not that different, but we're way different than you think we are."

And a voice from the audience announced with a celebratory shout: "It's not only about basketball at Dominguez High anymore."

*

"OT: our town," Tuesday, 3 p.m., Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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