It’s Time to Man Up: Reflections from an Urban Educator’s Perspective on the 2-Actor Play that Explores What it Means to be a Man

By Mr. Westbrooks

“no education. no freedom.”

ManUpthePlay  It’s Tuesday. School’s out for the year for the most part with the exception of the extra days that we’re contractually required to work. I’m cleaning and packing up my room, just to unpack it again in September. I receive an email from a coworker about an upcoming stage play called Man Up. I read the email along with the accompanying flyer, and the production was described as a two-man play that tackled the topic of manhood along with issues that men deal with such as fatherhood, relationships, bullying, substance abuse, PTSD, etc. They were holding 2 shows on Friday evening, and I knew immediately that this was something that I needed to experience.

Before I build on my immediate thoughts and reflections after viewing the play from a Black male educator’s perspective, allow me provide context without spoilers. Man Up is centered around two main characters, a Black male high school English teacher and one of his Black male students. The student, whose name is Jihaad, suffers from an ill that is all too common in our society: His father has been absent for the majority of his life. Jihaad’s bitterness about his father’s absence contributes to his challenges with school, particularly with his English teacher Mr. King. Jihaad is frustrated by Mr. King’s tough love, and Mr. King is frustrated by his inability to reach a troubled young man who exudes the potential to be great. This is another phenomenon that is quite common in urban education and something I experience regularly in my day-to-day interactions with students.

However, like any skillful or effective teacher, Mr. King used his English class as a space for therapy and release. This was a concept I learned about in one of my English education courses in grad school. Ultimately, the multimedia project on “What it Means to be a Man” would eventually lead to Jihaad coming to terms with his father not being around and finding an exemplar father figure in his teacher.

As a Black man, who happens to also be a teacher, here are three things I took away  upon viewing experiencing Man Up:

The Importance & Necessity of Black Male Teachers

In one scene, Mr. King’s day-one homie questions him on why he chose to do deal with the stress and underpayment of the teaching profession. His response is powerful, and I echo his same sentiments. There are very few male teachers in the profession. There are even fewer Black male teachers and even, even (times 2) fewer Black male English teachers. Mr. King said it simply: Black boys “need to see strong, Black men.” Having access to positive role models who look like them can leave a favorable impact on their academic success and adolescent development. This is one of the primary reasons why I perceived teaching in an urban area as a calling, and I subsequently answered the calling.

The English Classroom as a Humanizing Space

Many educators probably feel that nationally sanctioned standards and standardized test prep stunts creativity and “real learning;” however, the key components of English Language Arts remain. Students still read literature and engage in narrative, persuasive, and expository writing. There are opportunities to discuss and debate amongst one another and chances to create multimedia presentations. Despite the limitations, English teachers have a bit more wiggle room than other core content area teachers.

Rather than allowing English class to add on to the frustrations that many of our youth are already facing, the subject should do the opposite by becoming a source of therapy. I was consciously exposed to this concept while taking Prof. David Kirkland‘s “Hip-Hop and the Teaching of English” course at NYU. Via learning tasks such as the video project Mr. King had his students produce, the texts that we choose to the read, the open-ended writing activities we assign, and the thought-provoking, small group/class-wide discussions that are sparked by our effective questioning transforms the English classroom into a humanizing space.

Furthermore, the fact that the writers chose to depict the education-centered plot of Man Up as dramatic art in the form of a stage play infused with music and poetry, indirectly legitimizes the need for arts education in our schools. Even without courses in the various forms of art, English teachers can incorporate the arts into their curriculum by having students create poetry or participate in Theatre of the Oppressed activities, which I was also introduced to in the Hip Hop course.

Regardless of whether learning comes in the form of traditional tasks such as reading, writing, and discussing or in more creative forms like visual and dramatic art, providing students with spaces to express their thoughts and feelings while acknowledging and affirming their humanity will ultimately break down the psychological and emotional barriers that hinder their achievement in school without sacrificing rigor and high expectations.

All Men Need to Man Up

In the public forum, we’re often most critical of the men or boys that wreak havoc in our neighborhoods. Indeed, they need to be adjusted, but in reality we all have room for improvement. We’re critical of the Jihaad’s of the world for being annoying as hell in class and seemingly not taking their education seriously, and we demonize the men like Jihaad’s father for being deadbeat daddies. Man Up made it a point reveal that all men have challenges, even brothas like Mr. King who on the surface seem to have it altogether.

Overall, Man Up is a must-see production for its themes, lessons, humor, interactivity, aesthetic value, and its relativity to our daily challenges. Although the play is male-focused with an all-male cast and characters, there’s a message for everyone. It’s a calling for all boys and men to man up, and it’s a calling for all girls and women to set high expectations and standards for the boys and men in their lives.

Man Up will be on a 28-city tour this summer. Visit www.manuptheplay.com for more information.

Man Up Post Play

“Without teachers, there wouldn’t be any other profession.”

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