Ot: Our Town

To hear the students of Compton, Calif.'s Manuel Dominguez High tell it, their school is best known for poor academics, gang-related riots and a basketball program that regularly draws NBA scouts. But if this wonderful documentary gains the audience it richly deserves, Dominguez will also be known as the place where two determined teachers proved the power...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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To hear the students of Compton, Calif.'s Manuel Dominguez High tell it, their school is best known for poor academics, gang-related riots and a basketball program that regularly draws NBA scouts. But if this wonderful documentary gains the audience it richly deserves, Dominguez will also be known as the place where two determined teachers proved the power of theater to touch and even help transform a beleaguered community by mounting a production of Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town. Undaunted by the complete absence of a budget or a stage on which to perform, English teacher Catherine Borek and her colleague, Karen Greene, recruited 24 gutsy, if slightly skeptical, students, each with a back story as rich as those of Wilder's characters. Our Town is the most popular play performed on the American stage, but it seems an a odd choice for a fledgling drama department in South Central, L.A., and many of the students balk at the seemingly quaint characters and old-fashioned dialogue. What could a play about a bunch of turn-of-the-19th-century white folks in Grover's Corners, NH, have to do with life in present-day Compton's volatile streets? A lot, it turns out: the play's subjects are nothing less than life, death and the eternal truths of human existence. But with only six weeks left before opening night, Borek and Greene must not only help the kids learn the play and stage it in the school cafeteria with no lighting, sets, or curtain, but find a way to connect their students to a 70-year-old text and bring it all to life. In a brilliant stroke, filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy uses Wilder's three-act structure — "Family," "Love and Marriage" and "Death" — as the framework for his own portrait of an American community. As the students work their way through each act, Kennedy explores Wilder's themes in their own lives. He also wisely intercuts the school production with scenes from the celebrated 1977 production of Our Town with Hal Holbrook, Robby Benson and Ned Beatty. In the end, the whole experience not only allows the students to see themselves as a part of a larger community that stretches all the way to Grover's Corners, but gives them the opportunity to represent Compton as something more than a ghetto defined by violent movies and gangsta rap. "We're not that different, but we're different from what you think we are," says 16-year-old Ebony, and no playwright could have said it better.

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: To hear the students of Compton, Calif.'s Manuel Dominguez High tell it, their school is best known for poor academics, gang-related riots and a basketball program that regularly draws NBA scouts. But if this wonderful documentary gains the audience it ric… (more)

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