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Mifflin Class Play Prompts 'Social Action'

Cultural tensions at a Columbus City High School have eased a bit through the work of a drama teacher and his students. It's late morning at Mifflin High School. More than 650 students prepare for their fifth period class, including eight students headed to advanced acting with teacher Todd Adam Decker-Kaplonski. Decker-Kaplonski has taught in the Columbus City Schools for 18 years, but he arrived at Mifflin just two years ago. He said almost immediately he took note of a particular tension among African-American students and Somali students. "After teaching here at Mifflin for a year, I had noticed some of the conflicts or some of the quiet little comments said back and forth between the two cultural groups." Decker-Kaplonski said. "And not being a part of either group, I really wanted to learn more myself and also to use theatre as a means of social action." Senior LaRon Coleman said he noticed some of the same tensions as his teacher. "I came from a different school, so didn't really know about diversity and all about going to school with a different culture, other than, you know, you know, blacks and whites," Coleman said. "Well, when I came here, I was like, wow!" So Decker-Kaplonski decided to use theatre to help bring the two groups together. He had the students list all the cultural differences, stereotypes and things they disliked about the other culture. "And then I read it back to them. And I said, 'I want you to hear what you're saying coming out of my mouth and tell me what it sounds like," Decker-Kaplonski said. "And they kind of put their heads down and we're like, it sounds kind of like what white people used to say about African-Americans. " Then, Decker-Kaplonski, with the help of some other Mifflin teachers, scripted a bilingual play based on two folk tales. Senior Shenavian Holden remembers she was handed the script the first day of class. "It was crazy, it had language I had never spoken before," Holden said. "So it was like, huh?" The play, titled "Dhegdheerr-How Jack Beat the Devil," was first performed at Mifflin in December. Student Rahma Mohamed gave a cliff-notes summation of the Somalian folk tale. "Dhegdheer was an evil woman that hunts people, you know, go after people," Mohamed said. "She lived in a village where everybody was afraid of her, you know, yeah, and finally she got killed." Somalian student Khadro Jama, said the folk tale is part of an oral tradition in Somali culture. "Dhegdheer was actually told to tell us like what it was like back then, and people told their children and kept passing on the story," Jama said. "I remember when I was young, my mommy used to tell me Dhegdheer was coming to get you or else go to bed." Sophomore Janaiz McCoy said the villain in the African-American folk tale is the devil himself and just like in Dhegdheer, lives are at stake. "This guy, his name is Jack, obviously, he's like playing a game of cards and he's playing with the devil and he doesn't know it's the devil and he's spending his money playing and the devil is like, he runs out of money, and the devil's like, well, we can go for your life. And he's like OK," McCoy said. Junior Cassandra Watters recognized a common thread in the two stories. "I think it's unique that we didn't have two different stories to tell, we had the same story to tell," she said. Decker-Kaplonski said there were setbacks during the preparation and rehearsals. He said the conflicts and differences in dress, rituals and religion were in "passionately fired" among the students. "You've touched so close to home on some of the cultural issues and religious issues that you're definitely going to have days that are more heated and not moving forward and actually feel like its dragging you back a little bit further," he said. On opening night, Decker-Kaplonski said the play drew the largest crowd in 10 years at a Mifflin theater performance. It's still a topic of discussion in the halls and more students want to take drama courses. And it won recognition from the Columbus Council on World Affairs.