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'Shake on the Block' lets New York teens tell the bard’s tales in their own words

Teenagers from the Lower East Side and Williamsburg adapt Shakespeare in summer program.

The house was set to open in 10 minutes at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Sidelast week. To prepare for the dress rehearsal audience of school children, the actors were given a playful warning:

“No 'whoop ass,' 'dead ass,' 'stupid ass,'” Modesto Flako Jimenez, the director, reminded them.

The creative terms weren't the problem. In fact, Jimenez encouraged the innovative language.

“If I can teach these kids Shakespeare, they won’t have issues of being weird,” said Jimenez, a Brooklyn actor and poet who started studying Shakespeare when he was around their age, and went on to start a theater company. “I explain to them that Shakespeare was just another poor man, and through years he got glorified as his class status went up. And letting them know he made up most of his words … he was speaking different ebonics from the time. And they’re like, ‘Oh word? Ok, so I can say this?’”

During the show, Jimenez fist pumped as Jasmeen Vargas nailed her adaptation of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, during which she committed to do whatever necessary to make her husband the king.

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“I had this picture of her as evil, but she’s really not,” said Vargas, 16, after the performance. “She wants what’s best for her husband. I translated Shakespeare's words to make them my own, I thought she was demanding, worried, giving advice. She’s a very strong character,” Vargas said.

In the show, the students trade fair Verona for Tompkins Square Park, and the Thane of Cawdor for the Thane of Alphabet City.

Some translations included: “I hate the word as much as I hate no WiFi” and “Losing a hot guy is a hard as losing a phone.”

This summer, Jimenez has taught two free Shakespeare workshops, one on the Lower East Side and at the other at the Williamsburg Library. Jimenez says that he himself funds the library program through his organization, Brooklyn Gypsies Collective, which partnered with Brooklyn Poets, where he is vice president of the board of directors, and Spaceworks for the rehearsal space.

“I started this because Brooklyn needs it,” Jimenez said.

The next and final Shake on the Block performance is at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31 at 61 Local in Brooklyn, along with other summer Brooklyn Poet performances.

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