Neff theater production brings students out of their shell; teaches confidence, community

Since October, Neff Elementary fifth graders have been engaged in a massive undertaking in their creative arts classes, one at which many fully grown adults might balk. Students—112 of them—are working together to produce, stage and star in a production of Aladdin Jr. The four months of hard, collaborative work are about to pay off as the show opens tonight for a limited two-night run.

Neff drama teacher Annais Alvarez is directing the show. Along with teacher specialist Monica Diaz, dance teacher Sydney Reichardt, music teacher Dot Brown and librarian Daisy Hernandez, Alvarez double cast the musical play to give  every student an opportunity to shine. Between shows, actors swap with dancers and members of the crew. The And students don’t just perform on stage—they created the sets and will operate the lighting and technical aspects of the show, as well.

Thursday’s performance stars fifth grader Gulalai Jabar as Princess Jasmine. Jabar is an English as a Second Language (ESL) student who came to Neff in the third grade. As a Newcomer student from Afghanistan with a limited English vocabulary, Jabar was afraid to try acting. Still she participated in the fourth-grade program last year—and through her experience as a stage manager, gradually built up the confidence to audition for and then perform in Aladdin Jr. 

“I was very scared to act this year,” Jabar said. “I really wanted to challenge myself, and [now] I love acting.”

Jabar explained that memorizing her lines to play Princess Jasmine has helped improve her English, and that public speaking has helped her to make friends and connect with other children.

Students who are a part of the play spend time working on the production each school day. They can also choose to stay after school with Alvarez to practice lines, perfect the sets and prepare for opening night.

“I feel like kids need to feel comfortable first,” Alvarez said. “The teamwork, the helping each other, that’s the beauty of theater. They’ll be helping someone else nonverbally, then they start to speak a little bit more and more and build up their confidence.”

Alvarez utilizes puppetry and pantomime in her classroom to make theater accessible to all students, whether they share a language or not.

“They don’t have to speak,” Diaz said. “Everybody can just get what they’re saying like it’s a whole different language that we’re all speaking. It has a lot to do with the instructor in the room, because she gives them a safe place to act silly and she’s going to act silly with them. They’re going to see that, and she gives them that safe space to come out of their shell.”

Aladdin Jr. opens with its first performance on Thursday, February 29, at 5 p.m. at Neff Elementary School. The second performance is Friday, March 1, at 6 p.m. The performances are free, but seating is limited.

For more information about HISD’s Fine Arts Department, see here.

For more information on HISD’s Bilingual/English as a Second Language programming, click here