Katzenstein began the Bronx Portraits project as a guest to rehearsals for a high school production of Grease. Jon Adam Ross, the director, who was a recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, invited him to visit the school in the South Bronx to witness the transformation of the group of students who were participating in the play. He was both intrigued and exhilarated by the energy of the students.
Jane Addams Vocational High School received a grant for the 2002-2003 school year to mount a musical, something the school had never done. Grease was chosen for its relevance concerning the life of high school students (gangs, romance, identity, etc.). No one knew what to expect at auditions, but the coolest kids in school, along with students from every other social group, showed up. There were three successful performances of the play with a raucous and appreciative local crowd of students and family members.
In May, 2012 Ross and Katzenstein organized a reunion of the original cast. The goal was to photograph the alumnae nine years later and also create video interviews of each participant, asking them how being a part of the production of Grease had an impact on their lives. The theater teacher at the time, Michelle Madera, who graduated from the high school and received her degree in teaching from NYU, is still teaching today. She helped organizing the reunion. Suzy Myers Jackson, who assisted Jon in directing the play in 2003 is now executive director of Opening Act, an organization that brings after-school theater programs to inner city schools.
This project has proved to be a remarkable and enlightening experience for all and is a testament to the importance that art plays in the shaping of young peoples lives.
© David Katzenstein