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A community college's Electra-fying effect

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2000


Ismene rushes in late after commuting by bus from her job at a hotel in New Jersey. Clytemnestra's baby often arrives with her and sleeps through rehearsals. Tiresias must leave early to jump in a taxi and hurry to his job as a night doorman on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

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But nothing dampens the spirits of the members of the LaGuardia Community College Theatre Ensemble as they prepare to offer their fellow students a double-header evening of Greek tragedy: "Antigone" and "Electra," presented together at only $3 a seat.

Greek tragedy may seem an odd choice for a college like LaGuardia. Located under the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge in a solidly blue-collar neighborhood of Queens, the school caters largely to older students who work and must shoehorn academics in around their need to earn a living. More than half of the 11,000 students were not born in the United States, and 92 percent of those who entered the school in the fall of 1998 required some remedial course work.

Such statistics raise the question: Might not something a little more basic, a bit more contemporary, and considerably more urban, work better?

Certainly not, says Philip Lerman, associate professor of humanities at LaGuardia and founder of the Theatre Ensemble. "Modern plays tend to be more topical, built more around a particular event. These are larger plays that teach larger lessons," Professor Lerman says. "Students understand things from the canon because the ethical problems they treat remain true to life."

The Western canon, newly multicultural

Lerman's decided five years ago to form a theater company that would offer students hands-on exposure to serious works of drama. So far the group has produced four plays by Shakespeare, and it is now embarking on Greek tragedy, joining a larger movement at various schools across the US. After a couple of decades of academic soul-searching in which many schools backed away from too much focus on the works of "dead white European males," some educators say there is now a resurgence of interest in core courses focusing on the more challenging thinkers and writers of the Western canon.

For some of Lerman's students, contact with the Greco-Roman world is a detour they never expected to make, but now say they are deeply grateful not to have missed. Alcide Salce, a personal trainer who came to LaGuardia to pick up a few courses in nutrition, is enthusiastically playing the role of Orestes in "Electra." Mr. Salce expresses amazement at the notion that students like himself might prefer a contemporary play to one by Euripides. "The fact that it's written 2,500 years ago makes it more interesting, not less," he insists.

He is also impatient at the notion that Hispanic literature might hold greater appeal to him. "Look, that's like saying that all I want to learn is 2 + 2," he says. "I want to learn everything."

Lerman says when he first told his colleagues at LaGuardia that he was forming a theater group and expected its first production to be Shakespeare's "Macbeth," "I got a lot of raised eyebrows and people saying things like, 'Good luck.' "