Teaching Law Where it’s Practiced: Theatre Espresso’s Uprising on King Street

By Hayley Wood

“I like when they ask us about how we feel about the man, if he was guilty or not. I like that we were able to vote and our votes counted to them.”

Student comment on Uprising on King Street:
The Boston Massacre

At the beginning of the second year of its two-year residency at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, Theatre Espresso is engaging students in grades 5-12 with the history of the Boston Massacre through its latest interactive play, Uprising on King Street. The residency is supported by a Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities “Liberty and Justice for All” grant.

Theater ExpressoThe fifteen-year-old theatre company has four other plays in its repertoire that cover such topics as the Fugitive Slave Act, Japanese internment during World War II, the Salem witch trials, and Reconstruction. The Trial of Anthony Burns recently had a two-year run at the Moakley U. S. Courthouse, followed by a residency at Orchard House (the Alcott House) in Concord. All of the plays are interactive; the young audiences participate by playing group roles, such as those of jurors.

On a rainy day in November it was obvious to this audience member that participation is key to intellectual engagement with historical events and characters, legal concepts, and the concept of justice. I witnessed a fidgety group of sixth graders morph into attentive and engaged viewers as the skilled cast, changing characters and costumes from scene to scene, conveyed the tale of John Adams’s 1770 defense of the British Colonel Preston, whose soldiers fired on Boston mob that was taunting his regiment in an event that became known as the Boston Massacre. Did he command them to fire? If he didn’t, was he still, as Colonel, responsible for the deaths of five Bostonians? Should Adams, who opposed the British military presence in Boston, have agreed to defend Preston? Is violence ever necessary to keep the peace? How does one cope with conflicting testimony from witnesses? These were central questions that the play posed to the group. In their roles as jurors, students had an opportunity to question the actors playing John Adams, Colonel Preston, and the prosecutor. Following the lively Q&A, an actor judge took the floor, explaining that it was time to vote on Colonel Preston’s guilt or innocence. After taking a few more questions from the students, the judge asked for a show of hands for the two possible verdicts. The “jurors” found Preston innocent, but it was close.

All of Theatre Espresso’s plays are about raising questions; they also provide well-researched historical information that adds solid context to each performance. Period costumes are of high quality, and dialogue is often based on primary sources such as letters, actual trial transcripts, and diaries. The company’s cofounder and artistic director, Wendy Lement, notes that “determining a central question” is the keystone to developing a play. “We try to develop a question that is complex—something that students will need to grapple with. In Theatre Espresso’s dramas, the students are placed in decision-making roles, and the central question determines the decision they are asked to make.”

With the goals of providing vivid experiences for young audiences, imparting history, and conveying issues of social justice, the company uses artistic and educational techniques known in the field as “drama-in-education.” Drama-in-education, which began and continues to thrive in England, utilizes scripted material, improvisation, and audience participation. The performers are known as “actor-teachers." In character as state senators, Supreme Court Justices, members of Congress, or jurors, students rise to the occasion, asking questions and asserting their ideas about the issues raised by the plays. There couldn’t be a clearer example of training children to think critically.

Theatre Espresso provides teachers with study guides and pre- and post-performance lesson plans both to prepare the students for the compression of complex historical information presented in the plays and to deepen the educational impact of the theatrical experience. At the John Adams Courthouse, an exhibition of documents and images relating to John Adams is currently on display. Students tour the exhibit after the performance, having become acquainted with John Adams the person, the Boston resident, the principled lawyer who provided counsel to a member of an occupying force whose presence in Boston he opposed. Empirical evaluation research suggests that drama-in-education programs teach more effectively than traditional means. Student evaluations consistently demonstrate that the students enjoy their active roles and appreciate off-the-page contact with historical information.

Straight-up history is one educational component of the work of Theatre Espresso. More abstract notions of social justice are introduced by inviting participants to exercise judgment and vote on an outcome—one that may or may not be what happened in history. Such creative approaches to active learning let students know that they have an ongoing role in determining the meaning of justice in their society. As Superior Court Judge John Cratsley emphasized in a post-performance conversation with the students, being a juror is a civic responsibility that each student will likely experience as adults. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities is gratified to assist with training young critical thinkers who will one day become guardians of the ideal “liberty and justice for all.”

©2007 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2007