ODE TO OAKLAND:
A DECADE in a CITY at the CROSSROADS
by Donn K. Harris, Chair, California Arts Council
(former Director of the Oakland School for the Arts)
This past October 30, I stood on the stage of Oakland’s Paramount Theater and welcomed the full house to the concert that would be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the brilliant and heroic Venezuelan maestro who is the face of the El Sistema musical movement, now an international network of youth orchestras. On this date the musicians were from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Matias Tarnopolsky, the Director of Cal Performances, who had graciously invited me to be on stage with he and Deborah Borda from the L.A. Philharmonic, commented on the boisterous applause I received when introduced. On June 30, four months earlier, I had finished my 9-year tenure as the Executive and Artistic Director of the Oakland School for the Arts, a thriving charter school just blocks from the Paramount. A few people in the audience, it seemed, remembered me.
Looking out on the 2000+ attendees and with Maestro Dudamel smiling at me from the wings, I had one of those moments that characterized my time in this gritty and at times incomprehensible city: there wasn’t a place on the planet I would have rather been. I had watched the Warriors win a championship in one of the world’s great bars, Make Westing, within shouting distance from the school; months earlier, across the street at the Freelove Music Studio inside the Oakstop art collective, I had listened to a 5th grader play an etude that broke my heart as he prepared to audition for OSA, before going downstairs to Make Westing again to watch stoic, Paul Bunyan-like Madison Baumgarner pitch the Giants to the championship (and yes, Oakland was cheering that night). We celebrated at Ozumo when we signed the lease to take over the Historic Sweet’s Ballroom on Broadway, and again when we leased the Newberry space next door; local Renaissance man Steve Snider included us in all his plans and visions; our partnerships with Flight Deck, the theater co-op also on Broadway co-founded by quintessential entrepreneur artist/Anna Shneiderman, and The Piedmont Piano Company on San Pablo – where a few times a year owner and local iconoclast Jim Callahan rolled out one of his $200,000 Fazziolis for our kids to play for the public – were mutually beneficial, friendships as well as business arrangements.
I love my new work, and San Francisco is where my children were born and educated and is world-class all the way, but after that Sunday concert – I missed Oakland. It felt like home.
I was concerned that I had not been able to say a proper goodbye to this kaleidoscopic place, where every neighborhood was a world unto itself and yet pride for the whole ran deep. I had thrived in Oakland, and the city seemed to fit my character at some fundamental level. Being a charter school administrator was part of it: freed from the constraints of a school district, yet armed with the detailed knowledge I had gained in over a decade as a public school leader in a large district, I could fully explore creative avenues in all aspects of the work. Even employed by a well-known political figure – our current governor founded the school when he was the mayor of Oakland – I never had fewer politics in my life. If politics in the workplace is what is left over when you take away everything that is real – the financial, the logistical and the mission-critical – then at OSA, when we stripped all those layers away from a problem, instead of asking, OK, whose reaction do we have to worry about, to whom do we owe a ceremonial concession?, we could instead ask: What’s the right thing to do? What a concept! Perhaps I didn’t need closure. I wasn’t moving to Siberia, after all, or even to Sacramento.
I walked on Broadway and turned on 21st Street to the backstage entrance of the Paramount. I had to produce ID to be given my backstage pass, and even with that the gatekeepers were dubious. Finally my contact from Cal Performances came running up, pushing me past the guards, explaining, “This is the Chair of the California Arts Council.” Their faces showed amusement – another bureaucrat with a title. Oakland can be a tough town to win over: it’s tough, hard-edged, takes a punch better than anywhere I’ve ever experienced. Loma Prieta earthquake? West Oakland gets the more spacious, light-filled Mandela Parkway. Political turmoil? Is there a city with a stronger, more defined political voice? Where else do the police know exactly where to go to follow the protest route when an incident happened somewhere else? Protest should never become routine but it says something when it’s happened often enough that certain conventions are understood. Drummers are in trouble for making noise? The City Council makes it a referendum on culture, class and tolerance, and Council President Lynette McElhaney is out there drumming with the celebrants. No wonder Oakland boasts more natives by percentage than any Bay Area city. People are proud of this being their hometown. Many of us don’t even have a hometown. That’s another special aspect of Oakland: the lost can be found.
The 21st Century history in which we participated was epic: the raging and storming Occupy movement, causing us to close school three different times as the protests raged, often with many of our students and families joining; the NY Times did a story on Developer Phil Tagami, a personal friend who was instrumental in getting the school into the Fox Theater, defending the Rotunda building with a shotgun and inspiring comparisons to Charles Bronson in Death Wish; the art work on the 3rd floor of the school that proclaimed, graphically, profanely, yet with the full support of our families if not our staff, allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement; Fruitvale Station, the place, the incident and then the film, galvanized the city whenever news surfaced about the BART policeman’s status; the film’s Director was a guest judge at our city-wide talent show; our founder was elected to the governorship for the third and fourth times, our vocalists singing at two inaugurations and various political rallies; and finally I was seated in the front balcony box watching President Barack Obama walk across the huge empty stage of The Fox, a lone heroic figure with his shirtsleeves rolled up in the hot autumn night as Bruce Springsteen’s We Take Care of Our Own played, finally reaching the podium to boom Hello Oakland into the microphone with our kids right below him having just sung the national anthem – these were powerful moments, majestic and deeply significant.
As unified as we were about many issues at the school, there were differences that were challenging to navigate. The staff member who came from generations of police officers didn’t want to work in a building that had a “Fuck the Police” sign prominent in a window, while the teacher who put it there insisted it was a legitimate exercise of free speech. “Not on a public building,” I ad-libbed, “where many people are represented by what you say.” She took down the sign; I may have violated her rights; sometimes I have to make the call.
Our kids knew very well what was going on in the world: their works of art reflected the turmoil of the times. Anti-immigration legislation spurred a semester of “I am not illegal!” works, and any state that tried to pass anti-LGBT legislation was loudly denounced. The Middle East was a constant source of written protest and pacifist sentiment – many of our students had been given Muslim names by their parents, and the Middle East conflicts, with car bombs and rubble and angry faces in the shaking cameras, with youth dying in the streets, did not seem any different to them than Jamal or Fatima being hassled or even gunned down here in America. We were an American institution in a complex city and time, filled with contradictions and volatility: a city that birthed the Black Panthers, had a massive Mormon Temple that dominated the night sky from any rooftop, and was the city Jerry Brown chose when he decided to return to politics in 1998.
“I looked around,” he told me, “and asked who would have me? Oakland seemed like it just might be the right place.”
In the years preceding and just after the millennium, Oakland was reeling from various social and institutional crises. Its national reputation was that of a crime–ridden haven with a dangerous anarchistic bent. There was evidence of a growing racial divide in where people shopped and ate and bought houses. Even with the property value bubble, Oakland was economically depressed, and looked it, with empty storefronts everywhere tagged with layers of angry graffiti. We had, impossibly, a rush of obvious gentrification and a microclimate-type recession happening simultaneously. These were the early Jerry Brown years, when his administration launched the ambitious 10K plan to add 10,000 housing units to the center of the city – largely successful, with over 6,000 units completed, it helped spur the Uptown Arts District and did have an effect on the Oakland economy and the Downtown revitalization, but other forces were at work as well – it was a schizophrenic time, and in the midst of this, The Oakland School for the Arts was created, opening its doors to 100 high school freshmen in the late summer of 2002.
As a counterpoint, the beleaguered school district went bankrupt in 2003. Arriving at Atty. General Brown’s bidding in November of 2007 to lead OSA, I saw immediately that Uptown really was a place, not a real estate fabrication meant to sell homes or business properties.
The Brown administration’s two terms were highlighted by the reopening of The Fox Oakland Theater after 42 years of darkness, and the blossoming of an alternative arts scene that put Oakland on the map with Berlin, Barcelona and Sao Paolo. In 2012 the NY Times rated Oakland “the 5th best city in the world in which to eat” – and this was a store-front, small restaurant movement, as was the arts movement, as was almost everything Oakland: no gaudy institutions, no ostentatious maître d’s greeting the literati or whomever.
I experienced the rage of the Oakland teachers’ union toward charter schools almost from the first day I started at OSA. I attended school board meetings that were on the verge of breaking into riots. Teachers, nearly frothing at the mouth, chanted for the new superintendent to go back to Denver because he suggested that a failing school might be taken over by a charter, among other options. Antawn Wilson had come to Oakland a few months back with his wife and daughter, and now we had college-educated professionals unable to behave within any kind of reasonable boundaries, shouting and enticing others to shout at him to go back to Denver. I had always despised that deeply, the entire sentiment that could assign people to a place and that they should go back there, it seemed so indefensible to me, even as a child, that we could draw those types of lines. And this was Oakland: we were supposed to know better.
I wrote about the Oakland School for the Arts in the Strategic Plan we completed before my departure as part of a narrative on the country’s top arts schools:
Perhaps the most free-wheeling of the arts schools, OSA is the brash younger brother to the more established schools, nimble and facile but also reflecting the tone of its founder, current Governor Jerry Brown, who has chosen leadership that challenges the norm, a stance fully consistent with the history of this rambunctious and diverse port city . . . . . the nearly 800 OSA students move between four Uptown sites, fulfilling the promise of the redevelopment plan. The diverse student body attends school within blocks of ground central for the most militant Occupy movement in the country, the cannabis-centered Oaksterdam University, and a variety of cannabis suppliers, bars, performance spaces, ethnic restaurants, adult shops and artists’ cafes, forming one of the most unexpected school environments in the country – attended by children as young as 11 years old. In 8+ years, there have been almost no incidents of trouble in the neighborhood. OSA had become so popular that the percentage of suburban students needed to be capped. Given the edgy inner city ambience, the attendance of suburban students in any number is a testament to the quality of the school and the nature of Bay Area parenting.
There we go: Oakland in microcosm. In this time l have come to call The Random Age, pain struck randomly when ten-year old Christopher Rodriguez, who was later to be an OSA student, was in Krista Freelove’s Piedmont Avenue music studio playing the piano when a bullet from a nearby robbery ricocheted through a wall and lodged in his spine; to this day he fights to walk. Chris is a deep young man and he is a serious athlete still, along with playing the piano and making films as he did at OSA. The Random Age had struck again.
Oakland is: diverse in every conceivable way, activist, exponentially progressive, self-reflective, fierce and kind simultaneously, and never predictable. Middle class families were all over me if we didn’t move quickly enough to bring in low-income students and students from different neighborhoods. In my annual addresses, diversity efforts were given raucous applause. The Occupy Movement, with its professed anarchy and not infrequent outbursts of violence, posed a real threat to our property and children, but was embraced by many of our families, who joined the protests on the days when we were forced to close the school.
I decided to use one staff member as a success barometer. Mr. Reginald-Ray Savage was the Director of Dance and one of the most commanding figures I had come across, in the arts or beyond. In his 50s, dark-skinned and boyishly handsome, he was built like a linebacker but moved almost on tip-toes with the grace of a lifelong ballet dancer. Mr. Savage raged, whispered, sprung tears, refused to speak to a student for hours if any of his essential tenets were violated. He thought the rest of the school was well beneath his standards; he held his dancers close to avoid corruption from the undisciplined masses.
Faculty meetings would often erupt into stream-of-consciousness Savage rants, and demands from staff for me to control and reprimand Savage, who, as myth had it, had eaten the previous director for lunch when an argument broke out at a meeting. The man had insulted Savage, who was then relentless in ongoing verbal retaliation – Savage was not a man you wanted as an enemy. He had a brain like a vise-grip and a sixth sense for your weaknesses. With a voice from the caverns of doom, carrying a gnarled wooden cane with a death-head skull on its handle, Savage banged and thumped and used it like a gavel to create order, although his commands usually resulted in chaos and anger, probably more in his comfort zone anyway.
I used Savage as a barometer because the staff was using him that way as well, checking me carefully to see if I got rattled or was giving up and whether I could have any effect on him. I pushed the accreditation efforts, forced Savage into the mold, cajoled and pushed staff into complying. When we got going, I cut the large meetings down, let sub-committees do their work and I could begin to work with Mr. Savage one-on-one. This was the beginning of a working relationship based on the desire, if nothing else, to keep our jobs – we both sensed the essential need for the other – and it lasted nine years and resulted in an ongoing friendship that I value greatly. He loved his dancers like a parent – a tough-as-nails-parent.
The accreditation team gave us a three-year term (maximum was six) and wrote: There is enormous potential here, but turnover and chaos must be reduced. . . . . we breathed a sigh of relief. By that time Savage was somewhat subdued and began to use the word “we” occasionally, which had people making faces in mock-amazement behind his back and caused me to tease him at one meeting, “Mr. Savage, am I hearing you correctly, you used the word we, as in the collective group of which you admit to being a part?”
“Don’t get too comfortable with that,” the man cautioned.
“I like it,” I said as if it were a new haircut. “It becomes you.”
When I recall the parents who whispered in my ear those early years that I never should have come, I want to let them know: it was worth every minute. When I allowed the dress code to slide into oblivion, the students looked at me with such love I could have wept. I took the hard-working faculty off lunch duty. I begged our way out of bad leases and returned unused equipment. In my third week the secretary asked me to watch the phones while she went to the mailbox to “get the check.”
I had a sinking feeling. “What check?” I asked.
”The one from the State, you know, comes through Alameda County, the one we use for payroll,” she answered, and I must have looked at her in disbelief because she added: “It’s there most of the time.”
“The check is hard copy, and it comes in school mail?” I asked.
“Most of the time,” she repeated optimistically.
Every new Oakland business seemed to have an art component – a restaurant, a shoe store (Sole Space), a law office: oil paintings, wild abstracts, local artists’ murals on any flat exteriors, spoken word in galleries needing only a microphone and a bulb, small video installations and 50’ projections, collages of industrial detritus, traditional representational work, stark and plaintive photography – the forms are countless. The OSA Fringe Festival theatrical submissions, performed in Oakland before hopping the pond to the late summer Edinburgh gathering, included a student-written adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, performed with the actors holding picture frames to their faces at key moments, courtesy of the inventive genius of the theater chair, Michael Berry. They traveled to Scotland with these frames and I have two of them in my house now, framing posters from OSA shows. The next visit they took a student-written piece about our political turmoil: The Signs of Our Occupy, with students carrying the picket signs on to the airplane.
Oakstop on Telegraph is an artists’ collective that combines the creative and the political and the entrepreneurial, a swirling buzz of energy and meaningful social activity run by Trevor Parham and the informal hang-out of one of my favorite local music artists and activists, Jennifer Johns; Oakstop manages to be a thriving business just by bringing people together. Oaklandish, hardly two blocks away, is a clothing line and a producer of other enterprises’ clothing lines, its symbol the city’s iconic broad oak tree; two blocks the other way, Oakland Impact Hub is Oakstop for the technology crowd.
There is Oaktown Jazz on Jack London Square and Oaksterdam the cannabis university, meticulous taxpayers and a funder of artists and arts non-profits; Oakland North, a spin-off paper of the Bay Area News Group, gave us the dapper and behind-the-scenes reporter/ ex-Air Force pilot/power broker Conway Jones, Jr., my close friend and mentor who to this day keeps me connected. Use “Oak-“ in your title and we have a good idea what you’re about: social action, racial equity, indifference at best to the status quo, and capable of anything.
A decade in this milieu and the school had made its mark on a national and international scale: three students at the London University of the Arts for Fashion Design; an actor at London’s famed Guildhall where Sir John Gielgud had been on faculty for many years; a vocalist on tour in Germany; another touring with Porgy and Bess and Memphis; and two students in the same year admitted into UCLA Film School, possibly the most competitive program in the world to enter; a dozen working designers scattered along the west coast, and the entire 2015 graduating class of theater students, all nine of them, admitted into acting programs in New York: NYU, Pace and The New School; a graduate of the first OSA class, 2006, a vocalist with an MA in Journalism now the Communications Director for one of our most esteemed Representatives in Washington D.C. – they did not attend OSA for a nice experience with a bit of swag: these kids were serious artists and driven professionals.
The 2013 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, double cast because Director Matthew Travisano, the current theater chair, simply could not choose between talented students who he felt deserved the opportunity, saw three of the four leads ending up in the UCLA Theater Department, another nearly impossible program to enter. The play itself was acted with an intensity and authenticity I would put up against any Streetcar production I’ve ever seen. The Stella scene and its aftermath, in both casts, was almost unreal in the level of human understanding and emotional depth – coming from teenagers portraying battered, desperate adult characters. I had to believe that there was a piece of Oakland in their performance of that play, a deep part of them that internalized all that was gritty and raw and beautiful in Oakland, all that was poetic and profane, giving them a portal through which Stanley and Stella and Blanche could be portrayed clearly and compassionately.
There is more: Oakland-born, OSA-educated Disney star Zendeya who stood up to the ethnic hair controversy at the 2015 Oscars with maturity and grace as described in People Style; and the fourteen year-old Kehlani, still at OSA at the time, three years prior to her Grammy nomination, telling Piers Morgan on America’s Got Talent, poised as could be, that no, she wouldn’t ditch the band as he suggested, these were her brothers, they were in this together. The OSA a cappella group Vocal Rush, three-time international high school a cappella champions, is a local institution. In its first configuration the group made it to the finals of NBC’s The Sing-Off without the presence of their inspired teacher, Lisa Forkish, herself the subject of a character in the Pitch Perfect movie. Lisa couldn’t be with them because they were under the same rules as the adults, learning choreography and music and performing live on television within 24 hours. We faxed their math homework to a motel, watched the interviews where America probed them about gritty, exotic Oakland . . . . .
. . . . this Oakland that is five cities in one: the hills, the Uptown/Downtown Arts District, the fiercely proud West Oakland, the middle class flatlands/foothills, and of course East Oakland and the International Boulevard corridor, the subject of a film made by two OSA students that won a Harvard award for youth artistic achievement. I had to call up the mother of one of the girls who appeared in the imagery as a child prostitute. “I want to make sure you are aware,” I told the parent, who I knew rather well, “that her image is used in that way.” After a pause, the mother said to me: “It’s Oakland. She has something to say. We’re going to let her say it.” That was the same sentiment behind 52 laudatory emails from families after the 3rd floor art barrage of bloody imagery and angry profane poetry stayed on the walls for four hours following one of the acquittals in a Black Lives Matter case. The staff, including my much respected friend and fellow administrator Giselle Hendrie (known for saying; ‘This doesn’t happen in MY school.’) was ready to take my head off for letting it stay up. But Find Your Voice was our tagline, and we have to live with what that voice is going to say. We don’t get to use a cute slogan and then stifle the kids. They wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. If we were going to take flak from adults who were offended or from kids because we didn’t listen when we had promised we would – well, I knew when I woke up in the morning which choice I was going to make. I knew that when I entered teaching twenty-eight years ago.
It’s June of 2015, and Vocal Rush is in NYC singing in the international a cappella competition.
By this time there is a pattern in the life cycle of a given cohort of Vocal Rush, stemming from the very first year, when the kids were pretty much independent entities as they rose up the ladder of The Sing-Off. By the close of each school year the ensemble, almost by Lisa Forkish’s design, were to be fully responsible for themselves.
In 2015 the original group had graduated and we had a new cohort of students, still primarily female, all with high GPAs, very strong characters with firm beliefs and more than a bit of swagger. Given their success and standing in the school and the community (their gigs book at a $1000 per appearance), it is a credit to them and their families, and to the magic of Lisa Forkish, that they aren’t more diva-like, but what they are is – well, what would you expect in Oakland? – fiercely, irrepressibly independent.
They were on stage in New York City that warm and troubled June, singing their competition finale, Sara Bareilles’ Brave:
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody's lack of love
Or you can start speaking up . . . . .
But I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you wanna say
I just want to see you be brave
. . . . . . . and when the song was over, they simply turned around, pulled their hair forward if they wore it long, and on their backs were large letters, two on each back, that spelled out:
BLACK LIVES MATTER
The audience erupted with shouts and shrieks and the kind of pandemonium you hear when someone on stage has captured the moment perfectly, has spoken for the crowd in a way the crowd itself didn’t know until they heard the words spoken aloud. Vocal Rush was the international high school a cappella champions for the third time in four years.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking with OSA vocalists on the
“Curran Under Construction” stage promoting Fun Home. To
his right and our left are the writer of the original graphic novel,
Alison Bechdel, playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori.
(Photo: Michael Berry)
I had met Carole Shorenstein-Hays, the Tony-award winning San Francisco theatrical producer, briefly in the early millennium when the project I’m currently working on was having one of its periodic flare-ups and we were trying to interest people in creating something on that San Francisco Civic Center block we own. Brilliant and enthusiastic, with the irreverent manner of someone not taking herself too seriously, I made note of the encounter even after the momentary energy died down and the block remained untouched. So when in late 2015 I received a call in my OSA office from someone representing Carole with an improbable request, I made note again that things always seem to circle back around and the people you met in one circumstance are very likely to resurface in another.
The woman on the phone was asking, “Can you do this?” with great urgency. “There have already been a few snafus. I have to find someone who can do this.”
“Hold on a second,” I said. Using another landline, I asked someone to go find Michael Berry for me. While I waited, I flipped through my calendar. Berry came in, energized and a bit panicked. I did not usually summon people through a third party.
“The answer to this is already yes,” I said in our shorthand. We understood each other about the big things. “Get out your calendar. We have to have auditions in about two weeks, figure out a way to keep some parts rolling during winter break, and completely clear our calendars from January through mid-March. Can you do it?” The theater chair and Associate Artistic Director was looking through his phone with the appropriate gravity, glancing up at me every once in a while with a look imploring me to tell him what was going on. I had indicated the open line with a glance at the phone and he knew to wait.
‘”I’m good,” he said.
“I’ll call you back in fifteen,” I told the woman on the phone. “No, don’t worry, you know I really do call people back. It’s a big request. But we’re looking good.”
“What the – “ Berry began almost before the landline phone was back in its slot.
“You ready?” I asked him. “Two weeks from now. Auditions: School of Rock, new music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. To open the first week of March. West coast premier.”
He was looking at me as if I were out of my mind, which in a way I was. No one plops a hit Broadway show, a West Coast premier even, unplanned, down into the middle of a school year; no school does an Andrew Lloyd Webber premier. I called in Marti Cooper, my assistant, who could handle almost anything. Marti always rose to the occasion, but we had never been in these circumstances before, at this level, with the stakes this high. The three of us sat in my small back office, a relic from the 1927 Fox Theater Complex construction.
“Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Marti whispered. “Isn’t he called Sir? He’s been knighted, right?”
“He’s a Lord,” I said definitively. I’d already looked it up. He had been knighted once in 1992, then a 1997 ceremony I didn’t fully understand bestowed the title The Right Honourable Lord Lloyd-Webber on him, with a special admonition to always use the hyphen although it was not part of his birth name. He was to be properly acknowledged as Lord Lloyd-Webber in our printed materials whenever we didn’t use the complete title and full name.
“We can’t just call him Andy?” Marti asked with a sly smile. Michael Berry was pacing the small room, biting off a piece of his thumb nail.
I gave them the final word on how to handle everyone else: “No one can say No to this. They will start out looking at all the limitations.” I paused, thinking, and then said conspiratorially: “They invented the word Yes for things like this. Don’t forget that.”
It went as I had hoped: a little resistance, a quick understanding that this could not be refused, and great people went and did great work. Carole and her team were respectful of the school and our process, supportive at all times, low key and consistent with the technical details in the theater, publicity, logistics, schedules – all of it nearly flawless.
I had been firm on a full preview night with an audience, meaning the last dress rehearsal was to be treated like a show, with no stopping, playing through any errors, a complete performance. The governor and his wife came. I invited my colleagues from the California Arts Council and a host of others, and in general, at least in my world, it was a star-studded audience. Out front before the show, the governor and first lady arrived in a CHP vehicle and I went to meet them curbside. The press moved in to snap photos, catching the governor and me in mid-handshake. When the audience was seated we played congratulatory videos from the Broadway cast and His Lordship himself. The lights went up on the raucous opening scene, and we were off and running.
In the second scene the lead actor sprang an obvious nose bleed. The actor was laying on a bed, but he jumped up, blood streaming from his nose, looked around at the surprised cast, asked in perfect rhythm with the other dialogue, Does anyone have a napkin or a tissue? and was handed one by an alert audience member, who had calmly moved down the center aisle to help the actor. Thanks, my man the Dewey Finn character said, and the scene went on. Having once choked on stage during a dinner scene and been chided by my friends in the audience who said I broke character while trying to recover, I can attest to the difficulty, heightened by the peripheral factors here, of maintaining one’s artistic poise when in physical distress – Thanks, my man was exactly what Dewey Finn would have said.
Our middle schoolers played the students in the boarding school that Dewey Finn, the fraudulent substitute, turns into a rock ‘n roll academy; the OSA high schoolers played the teachers and parents. Some of our most talented juniors and seniors took roles in the ensemble because they understood they were around greatness, but also because they were selfless and giving, and the result is that every part in the play was filled with talent and savvy.
One 6th grader, the girl who took on the role of the bass guitarist (His Lordship insisted that the character had to be a girl who must really play the bass live on stage), had enthralled me from the beginning. I was told that she had learned the bass just to try out for this role, as she was a vocalist, not an instrumentalist. When I asked her about it, she shyly admitted it was true. “Thank you so much for this opportunity,” she kept gushing. “It is the highlight of my life!” The drummer was a theater student who also refined his chops just before the audition. The 8th grader who played the sassy, bossy foil to the wild Dewey Finn gave a phone interview in my office and told the reporter: “I purposely didn’t watch the movie so I could have my own interpretation. I had to look deep inside myself to find that character in me. I didn’t just want to copy something.” I must have reacted while she was talking because she looked over to me with a big smile and gave me a thumbs-up. Look deep inside herself? She had just turned thirteen. We had valedictorian candidates paired with struggling students, leadership roles both on and backstage taken by students with learning disabilities, seniors already accepted into NYU playing opposite students with serious credit deficiencies – a dreamscape of educational heaven, and all I really did to get it started was say yes. Not maybe, not we’ll see, not hold on the attorneys have to weigh in . . . . simply yes.
The young boy who played the keyboards in the stage band was the same one who had played the etude for me the night of the World Series game almost exactly a year earlier. An accomplished classical pianist, he played his heart out on the three-chord rock ‘n roll songs, and his nerdy manner, huge glasses and meek voice were skillfully low key, not him at all, and when he burst out of that shell in the closing of the first act when the rousing anthem Stick It to the Man sent the kids into a frenzy – well, what more can an educator ask? If I was retirement age, I would have retired on the spot. It didn’t even matter that I was now the man to whom they were sticking it. Somebody’s got to be the man, and I had kept my rebellious and gunslinger persona on call as I moved up the ranks, to be pulled out now and again, so better me than someone who had lost all sense of childhood.
The author giving his last OSA State of the School
address, September 2015, in historic Sweet’s Ballroom.
(photo: Krista Freelove)
At intermission I stood on the sidewalk by myself, reflective and perhaps a bit melancholy. I was beginning to realize that my time at OSA was coming to an end. The SFUSD opportunity had not been offered to me formally yet, but I sensed it was coming, and these past weeks, for the first time, I contemplated leaving. Nine years is a long time to lead an institution like OSA, and we were at a crossroads, ready for another growth spurt. It might be time for the senior staff to experience the inspiration of a new leader. On the street that Wednesday night were the usual characters, a mix of Tenderloin panhandlers, itinerant musicians, frightened tourists who didn’t know that “two blocks from Union Square” meant that they had been pushed into the small transition zone that looked and felt more like the Tenderloin than the fancy shops and cable cars of Union Square. Out front the musicians played jazz standards while an older black man over-crooned Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The scaffolding and heavy tarps of the Curran’s construction project dominated the street, giving it a dark, brooding aspect, like Hell’s Kitchen in the shadow of New York’s Broadway.
The lights flashed, indicating that intermission was over. Emotionally raw, I hunched up my tight shoulders inside my suit jacket, and turned back toward the Curran Theater. A beggar approached me and was about to ask for money, but he took one look at my face and stopped in his tracks: no compassion was coming from me on this night. He grunted, stood aside, and I went past him, made my way inside, and watched Act II from the wings. Marti Cooper had the flowers all lined up, sitting neatly in water buckets to stay fresh; excited, she squeezed my arm as the lights dimmed and the actors took the stage.
Months after I had left OSA and began my new gig with SFUSD, I caught Vocal Rush at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It was November. They were the featured performers for the housing nonprofit SPUR, whose community awards luncheon was sponsored by Carole Shorenstein-Hays, with whom I have happily remained in touch.
On that afternoon in the cavernous Moscone Center hall, just after Veterans’ Day and before Thanksgiving, the group of twelve vocalists walked up to the stage and sang before what looked like close to 1000 people. The lead vocalist, who I had known since middle school, was a high school senior now, a young woman of substance and power, and she walked through this crowd of the moneyed and the influential with such quiet confidence, such serene joy and command, that I could not for a second look away. They sang the beautiful and haunting Ring of Keys, from Fun Home, and they were magnificent, the dozen or so vocalists with harmonies so pure and resonant that they could have been a hundred, the pride of the other city across the bay that had been, for a brief shining moment, my cherished home.
The end of an era: my last night on Telegraph Avenue. To the right, the former
Newberry’s department store, now the OSA music wing. Further up, the large
white “wrapped” former Sears building after it had been sold to Uber.
(photo: Donn Harris)
Donn K. Harris is currently the Executive Director for Creativity and the Arts for the San Francisco public schools, charged with building out the District’s Civic Center property to become an Arts Center for students and the community at large. He was the principal of the school now called the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts during the years 2001-2008, from which both of his daughters graduated. Harris was the Executive and Artistic Director of the Oakland School for the Arts from 2007-2016. Currently serving a third term as Chair of the California Arts Council, which dispenses over $20 million in funds state wide, he has sent nearly 2,000 arts graduates out into the world to create their visions, wreak havoc and solve problems no one else even knows are problems.