BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The George Street Playhouse Players returned to Watsessing Elementary School on Friday, Feb. 2, with “The New Kid,” a play about bullying and acceptance of differences.
The 45-minute show was performed by a four-member troupe that last visited the school in December with a musical about healthy eating. As with the musical, the actors took questions Friday from an audience of students in third through sixth grade after the curtain came down.
Special resources teacher Joe Milano won a raffle at a teachers convention to bring the actors to the school in December, but said Title I funds were used for the most recent production.
“There’s so many ways to get information to children, by presenting it in a fun way and engaging all the learners,” Milano said. “My own philosophy is, you learn best when you’re having fun.”
“The New Kid” simply told the story of Nick, a young boy who emigrates from native country of Homeland to America with his mother. Although they speak English, we know they are not American because Nick, who at times directly addresses the audience, uses his fingers to eat from a sacred bowl and calls himself a “Homelander.”
“The bowl holds food,” Nick prays before eating, “and the food holds life.”
The action of the play takes place at a school and in the kitchen of Nick’s new home in America.
At school, Nick takes out his sacred bowl at lunchtime and begins to eat. Mug and Mercha, classmates of Nick, become aware of the aroma of his meal and act as if it is unpleasant, though Nick assures them, “It’s just seasoning.”
The two actors playing Mug and Mercha do not speak English, but gibberish, a device that presents the story from Nick’s point of view. And it becomes apparent that the actors are using an actual, made-up vocabulary.
In an effort to show his classmates that there is nothing offensive about his meal, Nick offers a taste to Mug who eats a morsel, feigns illness and falls to the floor as if dead. Then he gets up and walks stiff-legged, arms outstretched like a zombie, and takes the bowl from Nick’s hands and breaks it, shocking the audience. Mug then pushes Nick, who runs home to his mother, who tells him to ignore the schoolmates.
The next day at school, without Mug present, Mercha teaches Nick how to play catch and some words from her language. The Watsessing crowd really got into this scene, applauding for Nick when he caught the ball.
Mug enters and seeing Nick enjoying himself, pushes him.
“Scak!” he menacingly calls Nick.
Nick, in broken gibberish, asks Mercha what the word means. She tells him “Homelander.”
Returning home, Nick finds his mother upset from an altercation at the supermarket, where she dropped her groceries in the store and ran away. Nick calms her and tells her, in gibberish, how to ask for her groceries back.
At school, Mug is left out of Nick and Mercha’s ball games and, frustrated, attacks them, surprising the audience. Mug tells Mercha that Nick is dangerous, but she lets the audience know she is not threatened and will not back down.
Nick turns and speaks directly to the audience, saying “She was a real friend.”
Nick brings Mercha home to meet his mother, who offers her a bowl of food, which she eats by putting her face into the bowl, to the delight of the audience. She is instructed by Nick how to ask for more.
Mug enters the scene with a sign and the word “scak” written on it, which he places between the kitchen and the audience. Later, at school, Nick ignores Mug and approaches the audience.
“Now I know two languages,” Nick said. “Homelander and English, and I am working on others.”
After the show, the actors returned to the stage to speak and answer questions. When asked about the gibberish, they explained that they treated the sounds as words and rehearsed them as a language.
The actors also told the audience that, while Mug was a bully, Nick and Mercha had opportunities to reconcile with him when they were playing catch, but had excluded instead of including him, which was disrespectful of Mug’s feelings. The actors re-enacted the scene to show how Mug could have been included in the game if he had only said “please.”
A group of sixth-graders in the classroom of teacher Althena Giordano were later asked what surprised them about the play. Isabella said that not all girls are like the girl in the play; that some can be mean, but Mercha was not and remained friends with the bully. Leandro agreed and said Mercha did not take sides. A number of other students used the word “upstander,” referring to someone who takes action in a bullying scenario.
Milano said Watsessing guidance counselor Pam Catalano teaches the children about the importance of being an upstander.
In a recent email to this newspaper, Catalano said she encourages Watsessing students to be upstanders.
“An upstander,” she said, “is a student who, unlike a bystander, takes action by backing up the targeted student by telling them to ignore or pay little attention to the ‘bullier’ or ‘botherer.’”
She said if a student is being picked on for
their skin color, religion, country of origin or sexual orientation, or if there is a physical altercation, it is to be reported immediately.
“If the person is constantly picking on one other person, that gets reported, too,” Catalano said. “Upstanders can get the targeted student to walk away with them to safety and then help them report.”
The word “upstander” was coined by Samantha Powers, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a professor at Harvard Law School. In an email to this newspaper, Powers said she first began using the word, “as a contrast — in big policy terms and at the local level — to bystanding and bystanders,” while on a 2002 tour for her book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”
“The New Kid” was written by Dennis Foon and directed by Jim Jack. The cast included: Evan Hart, Rachelle Legrand, Christina Comizio and Joe Piserchio. Erica Leigh was the stage manager.