Like thousands of other teenagers, students at the Sheenway School in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts are studying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this year. But thanks to Jenny Agutter, an English actress who teaches part-time at Sheenway, these kids are not just snoring through the same old iambic pentameter.
“Okay, Tommy?” Agutter asks a burly, embarrassed looking 15-year-old near the back of her shabby classroom. “Okay,” he answers. “I’m going to do it now.” Ignoring the giggles of his pals, Tommy Dudley knocks his knuckles in rap rhythm against his desk and launches into his own up-tempo version of the timeless tragedy:
This is the story that you’ll never forget,
About the Montagues and the Capulets.
They fought on the streets of Verona,
But Romeo was a bit of a loner.
He fell in love with Juliet,
But the problem was, she was a Capulet.
So the story goes on and ends in grief,
But for the families there was no relief.
Agutter smiles, and the class hoots and stomps its approval. The old bard never sounded so hip.
For the past year and a half, Agutter, 34, has spent most Thursdays trying to bring Shakespeare to life for her 11 junior high and high school students. A veteran actress who has won acclaim for her work in movies like Walkabout, Equus and Logan’s Run, Agutter took up volunteer teaching to become more “engaged in the community” and to share her passion for the 16th century master. “I never liked Shakespeare in school,” she admits. “It was taught so dryly.” Acting in Royal Shakespeare Company productions helped change her mind, and Jenny hopes her teaching techniques will make enthusiasts of her students as well. In addition to encouraging regular classroom rap renditions, she invites actor friends like Olivia Hussey and Timothy Dalton to come in for impromptu readings. She also hopes to take the class to a live stage performance of Romeo and Juliet before the summer is through.
At first Agutter was nervous about her new undertaking. The Sheenway School and Cultural Center, which is in session year-round, is a small, donation-supported institution started 15 years ago as an alternative to public schools. Sheenway stands amid the tumbledown homes and rusted cars of Watts. Though the school itself is relatively crime free, the area is not considered safe by many of Agutter’s Hollywood acquaintances. Agutter had her doubts about teaching at Sheenway, but it wasn’t the school’s location that bothered her. “I was diffident about making a complete fool of myself in front of the class,” she says. “When you’re onstage, the audience knows they’ve paid to come and watch. Kids are more difficult—you have to work to keep their attention.”
Judging from students’ comments, Agutter has kept the attention of her non-paying audience. “At first I thought Shakespeare sounded boring, like only high-class people would be interested,” says Stella Okonkwo, 15. “Then I started reading Romeo and Juliet, and the story was really interesting. It would be even if it wasn’t written by this big-time guy.” Agutter has also succeeded in playing down her celebrity. “She doesn’t act like an actress,” Okonkwo says. Adds rap-master Tommy Dudley: “Movie stars don’t faze me—football players do.”
Much as she enjoys her role as educator, Agutter intends to continue playing other parts as well. The London-born daughter of a housewife and an entertainment booker for the British armed forces, Jenny made her debut in a Walt Disney TV production called Ballerina at age 11. She has been a successful stage, film and TV actress ever since, winning an Emmy for her performance in The Snow Goose in 1971. In 1983 she left Hollywood for a stint on the London stage. Since her return two years ago to a rented Hollywood Hills bungalow, the never-married actress has landed TV guest spots and completed a thriller called Dark Tower, due for release in the fall. But meatier roles—”anything Jessica Lange or Sissy Spacek turns down”—remain elusive. “It’s difficult to come back,” she says. “People here forget you very fast.”
For Sheenway’s rapping Shakespeare fans at least, remembering Jenny Agutter should be no problem at all.