Getting cool with Shakespeare

Tackling the work of William Shakespeare can be a challenge for students on too many levels to mention. But for one Codman Academy Charter Public School tenth-grader, her ability to both understand and perform Shakespeare has brought recognition to her and her school.

Amose Pierre, 17, recently recited her way to the state finals in the English Speaking Union’s national Shakespeare Competition, which has attracted some 250,000 student performers since 1983.
The program involves memorizing a monologue and a sonnet written by Shakespeare and reciting and performing them in front of an audience. Pierre made the finals after securing first-place in a competition at Codman Academy and then earning a top ten spot in a semi-final competition that brought together students from schools across the city. She was also the only student from a publicly supported school from the city of Boston among 32 semi-finalists.

Although she did not make it beyond the state competition last week, Pierre’s success has been called a great accomplishment.
“I enjoy doing this because it is fun and it is a very good experience that all students should have,” Pierre said. “It’s one way of trying to get rid of stage fright. It also gives you a chance to put yourself out there and make it known what talents you have.”

For the competition, Pierre selected the monologue delivered by the character Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” where he bemoans the way he is treated by others because of his religion.

“He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?...”
– [Act 3, Scene 1.]

Pierre said she felt she could understand some of the emotion in the selection, which made it easier to perform. “I think I related to the way he felt. I am a Christian. Shylock was a Jew. He was angry at how people looked at him as a Jew and thought he was wrong to believe that way,” Pierre said. “Some people ask me why I am a Christian or say, ‘why don’t you try some other religion?’ I think they ask me because they don’t understand what being a Christian is. They are more focused on the way we act on what we believe.”
Her sonnet selection was Shakespeare’s Sonnet #57. The first line is, “Being your slave, what should I do?” and Pierre said that was the line that captured her attention and made her want to read more.

But Pierre is not limited in utilizing her talents only for Shakespeare. For the second consecutive year, she has participated in national Poetry Outloud competitions. A competition similar to the Shakespeare event, participation requires memorizing three poems and reciting and performing them out loud. This year, she won First Place in the Poetry Outloud contest at Codman Academy.

On March 7, she will move on to the next phase of the competition, which will be citywide. Her selections include, “Broken Promises,” by David Kirby; “I Do Not Speak,” by Stevie Smith; and “I Am,” by John Clare.

For poetry, Pierre enjoys capturing the poets’ words with feeling. “I think poets and writers try to help you out by putting action words in their writing,” Pierre said. “ You have to find those phrases you can act upon and use while you are performing.”

Pierre first became interested in literary performances because it was part of the humanities program at Codman Academy. “I didn’t have a lot of experience reading Shakespeare,” she said. “ It was interesting to learn more about Shakespearean times and how they communicated with each other. The language has different meanings that the way we talk today.”

Pierre said that while she likes both Poetry Outloud and the Shakespeare competition equally, “I think I may be more comfortable with Poetry Outloud. I like poetry. We relate to the poets more than relating to Shakespeare himself.”

Memorizing text can be challenging, she admits. “Once you find a piece of monologue or another piece that you can relate to and understand, then memorization comes easy if you have that connection to that piece,” she said. Because Shakespeare’s works were written for performance, there is action in the text. “When I am performing Shakespeare, it is a very active kind of piece. There are different things to do when you are performing. I don’t find it too hard to perform.”

Pierre began performing at a young age – she has been singing at her church since she was 11 years old – and she said that has helped her in her current work.

“I like to sing. I perform in school, at church, and around the community,” Pierre said. “I’m not nervous [about the competitions]. You always get a little butterfly feeling in your stomach right before performing. I think the Poetry Outloud and Shakespeare competitions help to build more confidence. I want to get up there and put on a wonderful performance and hear the encouragement that you get. Everyone wants you to succeed.”

Many educators and mentors from Codman Academy have inspired her, said Pierre, including Brendan O’Connell, who is a humanities teacher at the school. She has also participated in theatrical performances as part of a partnership between Codman Academy and the Huntington Theatre.

At home, said Pierre, her parents ,Marie Lourde and Amos Pierre, have been very supportive of her performances, as have her her two younger sisters, Achelene and Athamar. She also said her aunt, Jocelyne Volmar, is a big inspiration for her. “She encourages me a lot to try to achieve my goals. If I say, I want to win a competition, she says ‘Go for it. I know you can do it. I know you are going to win.’ “

Singing, too, has helped to build her confidence. “I’ve been raised in a Christian family and we go to church every Sunday. My family is very active in the church. I grew up singing gospel songs,” Pierre said. “I’m in the choir at church and I also sing in my school’s Community Circle.” Outside of the choir, she likes to sing gospel, R&B, soul, and country music. “I like to choose a song that leaves a message with the person,” she said.

What about the future? “Right now I want to be headed to becoming a lawyer,” Pierre said. “But I wouldn’t mind performing in community events. I want to finish with school and then we’ll see what I do with the performing.”