As I mentioned a few weeks ago, what I liked about The Capeman was that the announcement that says you can't take pictures or make recordings was stated not only in English, but also in Spanish.
Little did I know how much that mattered, until I was invited back to a "regular" (i.e., devoid of critics) performance. On a Monday night, I heard the heavily Latino audience sigh with pleasure when that announcement was made in their own language. They felt welcome.
The most potent Capeman experience was yet to come. After the penultimate Wednesday matinee, I watched 600-plus kids who'd just seen the show interact with 14 cast members in a post-play discussion (after they gave screams of delight when Marc Anthony entered).
Marianna Weber, Theatre Development Fund's director of education -- who got the tickets for the kids -- is disappointed that Ruben Blades doesn't attend. "Last time he was here, and told the kids that his father was a teamster, but he made it through Harvard Law. 'And if I can do it, you can, too.'"
Blades' understudy, Jose Joaquin Garcia, stands in. "Hola!" he yells, and the kids respond with the enthusiasm he expected. But soon we're onto tough questions. "Is Salvador a hero?"
A beat. Then, "No" comes quietly from a few kids, then loudly from many more.
"What qualities do you have to have to be a hero?"
"Strength," says one, "Courage," answers another, and "Perseverance" says a third. Garcia wants more, though. "There's no right or wrong answer," he says, and is rewarded with "honesty" and "trust" for his own perseverance.
"Why did Sal do what he did?" gets such answers as "He thought he had to protect his family -- or who he thought was his family." "He wanted to fit in." "He was lashing out."
"And he landed in jail," Garcia says in a flat voice. "How many of you know someone who's in jail?"
And about 75 percent of the kids immediately raise their hands. They instinctively laugh out of nervousness.
Garcia won't have it, though. "It's not funny, guys."
Soon the conversation turns in a different direction. Ednita Nazario stresses that "you usually see white portraying Hispanics, but today, you saw your own people here." The kids cheer.
A chorus member admits, "That the people in charge weren't of color caused me trepidation at first. But Paul Simon said, 'How can we best represent you?' And he listened. That was good," she concedes, "but we need to be the people in charge."
Anthony says, "We're not a minority in America anymore. You've got to go out and write and direct and produce."
And a half-hour later, after the discussion is over, one girl dares to approach Anthony. "You make me proud to be a Puerto Rican," she says, and the star responds by kissing her cheek. Suddenly she's a legend in her own school.
The fun and learning didn't end there. I went to the Satellite Academy School at 51 Chambers Street, passed through the metal detectors, and went into a standard-issue classroom, where fluorescent lights shone on yellow walls and green linoleum tiles.
Twelve kids -- six boys, six girls, Latinos, blacks and whites -- were there, along with teacher Cathy Sepulveda, who ignored that some were eating Big Macs. She has greater goals. The diminutive, attractive woman -- picture Anita Gillette some years ago -- told me about them.
"These are kids who didn't go to school because they didn't feel safe there. Maybe there was an incident. Maybe there was no guidance counselor with whom they connected. Sometimes family situations got in the way. Some of these kids hung out with gangs, others sold drugs, others were involved in robberies." She gives a shrug. "Typical street mentality."
She will do her best to counteract it, as will Angela Pietropinto, whom I still fondly remember from a Papp production of The Mandrake a couple of decades ago. "Let's take a look at the effects of the media on public opinion," she says, as the kids look at Mike McAlary's November article about The Capeman in New York magazine.
Of "Capeman" Salvador Agron, she says, "When you come right down to it, he wanted respect. We all do," she says, almost offhandedly, but with enough punch to let the important message land.
She doesn't sugar-coat Agron's saying he didn't care if he'd "burn," and his seeming lack of concern for his mother's reaction. "He probably thought, 'You got me, but I'm still a tough guy.' What was there to lose, considering that he'd already lost every battle? But," she stresses, "he didn't feel that way forever, did he?"
Eventually the kids break into groups, where Pietropinto, Sepulveda, and NYU student teacher Rachel Schemmel, watch and help the kids develop their own plays. Lee Serrano, 17, is working on a piece in which a boy's step-father and step-sister don't like him and want him out of the house, and try to convince his mother to evict him. Jerry Gonzales, 18, writes about a drug dealer who has regrets about his lifestyle, and envies those who are living a different life. Mark Brown, 18, creates a story in which a girl wants to drop her in-school boyfriend for a drug dealer. He tells the class, "The dealer plants weed on the kid, the cops find it, and the innocent kid goes to jail. The dealer walks away with a smile on his face."
Alexandra Morelli, 16, is talking about "the blocking" she needs for her play.
"It's about violence. A mother sees her son shot. I live in a good neighborhood, Sheepshead Bay, but I know places where this happens."
"It's not just outer conflict," instructs Pietropinto, "but inner conflict, too. What does a character have to have?"
"An objective," softly says Serrano.
"Say it louder," Pietropinto insists, and Serrano repeats it, much more securely this time.
As they work, Sepulveda tells me that 85 percent of her graduates go on to college. "One even got a full scholarship to Syracuse. If you push them," she insists, "they rise to that level."
And how did the kids feel about The Capeman?
Alexandra Morelli says, "It was fabulous. I was blown away by the whole experience. The music was great. There were tender moments when I sympathized with everyone."
Thomas Gillet, 17, adds, "It was very exciting, unlike anything I'd ever seen before."
Mark Brown notes, "It gave you an excellent sense that if you weren't in a gang, you were nobody. I'm avoiding gangs, because you go nowhere with them. It's supposed to be protection, but it's a coward's way out. I say, face your own problems, and don't ask others to solve them for you."
Then Jerry Gonzales says, "I could relate to it. I know Sal was a daily worry for his mother, just like my brother is with mine. It's like that at my home. It's never 'Jerry, how you doing,' or 'What's happening in school?' because they're so worried about my brother," he says, before immediately adding, "I can handle it, though."
Make no mistake about it: The Capeman didn't get unanimous raves.
Lee Serrano said, "The scenery was great, the way it moved around, and the singing was really good. But I wanted to know how Sal Agron turned into a scholar in prison."
Luis Delgado, 18, added, "There were still some questions in my head. What kind of people did Sal meet in jail? Why exactly did the father leave his family? I didn't know what his sister was feeling, either. But I'm glad we got the chance to talk to the actors, what they were going through when they heard they were closing."
Said Weber, "I am well aware that The Capeman was a flawed piece, but I was glad our kids saw it. The subject matter was so relevant to them. We took kids to eCarousel' a few years ago, and they certainly liked it, but they didn't take to it the way they did to this. Everyone yaps about developing a new audience. Here's one that The Capeman helped to cultivate."
I know that show business is a business. I know a musical can't be kept open solely because some of the public would benefit from it. But a day after I spoke with the students, we all learned about the two Arkansas boys accused of murdering four kids and their teacher. The following day, newspapers introduced the now- famous photo of one young boy aiming his gun. Too bad that there aren't more programs like TDF and the Satellite Academy, so that genuine culture could counteract a very different kind of culture.
-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com