Imagine the sight and sound of American nine- and eleven-year-old children performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Henry V — and understanding every word they recite. Imagine them performing well enough to elicit praise from such accomplished Shakespearean actors as Ian McKellen and Michael York, and to be invited to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Such a spectacle would be highly impressive in the toniest of America’s private schools. But what if the kids were the children of recent Latino and Asian immigrants attending a large Los Angeles inner-city public school in one of America’s toughest neighborhoods?
That is the astonishing story told by the new documentary “The Hobart Shakespeareans,” which discovers how one man’s uncommon commitment and resourcefulness have opened up worlds of opportunity for his “disadvantaged” students — and perhaps have demonstrated a way forward for America’s beleaguered public education system.
The Latino- and Asian-American children crowding Los Angeles’ sprawling Hobart Boulevard Elementary face daunting odds. Their neighborhood in the heart of Central Los Angeles is better known for crime than for opportunity. They grow up in low-income households. Their school, typically for public education in poor districts, is under-funded and overcrowded. Most of their parents do not speak English. No one is giving these kids educational perks, like class trips and intensive tutoring. And no one is expecting any but the smartest and luckiest to rise beyond the limitations of their environment. No one, that is, except Rafe Esquith.