Teacher Aims to Save Lives With Musical

Jamal Speakes, drama teacher at Dorsey High in Los Angeles's inner city, dreams about saving lives by showing the city's black/brown culture clash on stage as shown in this image capture from the Friday, Nov. 27, 2009, broadcast of the "CBS Evening News."
Jamal Speakes, drama teacher at Dorsey High in Los Angeles's inner city, dreams big.

He wrote a high-school musical. That's one dream come true. But his big dream is saving lives.

"The story needs to be told for the kids," Speakes told CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker.

His students come from some of the roughest parts of the city. Gang violence in South and East L.A. - often between blacks and Latinos - flares with numbing frequency. One hundred and 10 killed this year so far.

"My first four years I lost four kids back to back to back to gang violence," Speakes told Whitaker.

Devastated but determined to make a difference, he put the black/brown culture clash on stage.

"Welcome to the West Side," a chorus sings with blacks on one side and Hispanics on the other. "Everything's all right where da bop bam boom and the bip bop bee, and you stay on that side."

In his musical, a black teen moves from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and falls for a female Hispanic classmate - "Romeo and Juliet" in the 'hood.

It's interracial love amid interracial turmoil.

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"This brand is on the other side of 'High School Musical' because it's real teens and real issues," Speakes told Whitaker.

The musical ran at Dorsey High last year to rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times and the mayor. But Speakes dreamed of getting the anti-gang message to all of the city's kids.

He opened up casting to performing arts students citywide.

"Does this high-school musical really relate to your lives?" Whitaker asked cast members.

"Yes yes yes!" they enthusiastically responded.

"Somebody dies like every year that I knew from 7th grade to my senior year," cast member Godwin Thurton told Whitaker.

"My dad was involved in gangs too," cast member Robert Perez told Whitaker. "He has tattoos all over his face and arms."

Speakes got busy fundraising, meeting and pleading all over the city.

"The asking price that I'm asking is $5,000!" Speakes yelled at a neighborhood council meeting.

He spent time wrangling funds from the city, sets from a theater company, the stage at Club Nokia downtown - a professional venue - managing the kids on stage and mentoring them off.

"I told him 'You're like the dad I never had,' and I love him," cast member Breonna Council told Whitaker.

As the play came together so did the cast.

"It didn't take that long for everybody to be like 'Hey, hey,'" cast member Tiffany Payne told Whitaker.

Finally it's opening day with kids streaming in from all over L.A.

"Black is wack, but brown is taking over," reads one lyric from the musical. "You can tell your mama that."

The audience gets it.

"We can get more together and more united," a Hispanic girl told Whitaker.

"There's no difference between us," a young black man told Whitaker.

"If this thing goes to Broadway, that would kick butt," Speakes told Whitaker. "But if it doesn't, the fact that there are kids making different decisions - for me, I couldn't ask for anything more."

Call it a down payment on his dream.

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On the Web

Speakes's Musical: http://www.philathemusical.com/