By Ben Joravsky
They've sent out a call for teenage playwrights and actors to do what few schools would dare: write and perform one play on race and ethnicity and another on genocide.
The joint effort by the Music Theatre Workshop and the Field Museum already is responsible for Guess Who's Coming to Rehearsal?, a powerful one-act exploration of teenage bigotry and diversity playing every Sunday afternoon at the museum. This summer their program will create and perform two new shows for which writers and performers are now being assembled. One play will address issues of teenage diversity, the other the Holocaust.
"We're gathering a diverse group of students in part to find out what they have in common," says Meade Palidofsky, MTW's artistic director. "We want to use theater to get teenagers to confront complicated and complex issues."
For almost 15 years Palidofsky, a playwright, has made a specialty of getting teenagers to write plays. In the last few years MTW, a not-for-profit north-side group, has produced plays written and performed by inmates at the juvenile detention center as well as by kids from public and private high schools all over the city.
As with most creative-writing teachers, Palidofsky has discovered that teenagers are filled with all sorts of angst and anger. The trick is to force them to find the discipline they need to write a play that transcends adolescent self-pity and self-indulgence.
The collaboration with the Field Museum enabled MTW to raise enough money to pay students for their writing, rehearsing, and performing. "The Field Museum was interested in appealing to teenagers because teens don't come to the museum very much," says Palidofsky. "It was our job to get teenagers together from across the city and look at the issue of living together."
To produce Rehearsal, now playing at the Field Museum, MTW began assembling writers last spring by contacting high school counselors and theater teachers. They discovered Mia Lahoz, a 20-year-old poet, when she was a senior at Notre Dame, a Catholic girls school on the northwest side. "My counselor told me Meade was coming, so I thought, 'I'll try it--it can't hurt,'" says Lahoz. "Meade asked me, 'Do you have friends of different ethnicity?' I looked at her like, 'OK, that's a really weird question.' I mean, I live in Chicago--of course I do. I guess she wasn't afraid that I spoke my mind."
Gary Horne, then a 16-year-old junior at Bowen High School on the city's far south side, was enlisted in part because of his enthusiasm and exuberance. "I've always showed signs of being a performer, even when I was a kid acting silly to entertain my friends," says Horne. "My father's a minister--I think I get my speaking abilities from him."
In contrast, Luke Kummer, a 17-year-old junior at Whitney Young, comes across as quiet and reserved. "When I first meet people I sort of hang back," says Kummer. "But I've done some writing and I've taught myself to play the harmonica--never had a lesson--and I love music."
All told, ten teenage playwrights were brought to a room at the Field Museum and told to write a play on diversity. They met four times a week from about nine in the morning until two in the afternoon. Their gatherings, stiff at first, came to resemble rap sessions in a coming-of-age movie.
Differences were examined, contentious issues explored. Some of the playwrights were religious, others secular. A lively debate erupted when one student opined that homosexuality was a sin. "I said, 'Hey, dude, 75 percent of the people in theater are gay. I mean, if you want to go into that, you better change your attitude.' That got things going," says Lahoz. "Gary and I were butting heads all the time over how you're supposed to talk to girls. He's coming on, 'Hey, how ya doin'? What's happenin'? You're lookin' good.' I was like, 'Oh God, I can't believe you think like that. It's sexist. It demeans women. You can't just force your way. You've got to be intelligent about it.' And he was just shaking his head, 'Give me a break.'"
Once or twice a week they went on field trips throughout the city. They interviewed Jesse Jackson's wife, Jacqueline Jackson, who fed them lunch in the backyard of her south-side home. They visited Louis Farrakhan's mosque, ate at the south-side restaurant Army and Lou's, toured Edgewater, and visited the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, where they bumped into the poet Carlos Cortez.
In addition, they spent hours interviewing each other. In the process they discovered that Kummer turned to music for much the same reasons that Lahoz turned to poetry. "We're all looking for something. In my case I think it's roots," says Kummer. "My family moved around a lot when I was a kid--I'd say I had 17 or 18 different houses. When I was about five years old I heard a Muddy Waters album, and the rest of the story is how it is. I fell in love with it. It became a part of me. It was the roots I never had. The blues was something that I loved that comes from the heart."
Many of Lahoz's poems express the heartbreak of being uprooted from the Philippines and separated from her mother, whom she hasn't seen in ten years. "My father was a political prisoner in the Philippines--Marcos didn't like him so he put him in prison," she says. "He was able to take me here, but my mother stayed back at home."
By the end of the summer they had hit upon a central conceit. The play would tell the stories of young actors quite like themselves who meet while auditioning for a show. The centerpiece of the play finds each performer stepping forward to sing a song or recite a poem about his or her life. Kummer's character likens his life to a river that "has flowed all over this wide land....Rhythm entered its soul and soul entered its song. The lonesome river flows in many shades of blue." Lahoz's character, brilliantly played by 18-year-old Leah Ignacio, recites a poem Lahoz wrote about being separated from her mother. She says about it, "My mom calls all the time, but one night when I was really depressed she called in the middle of the night and my dad and I picked it up, and I could have sworn she heard me on the line but she didn't acknowledge this and I just sat there and listened and she talked to my dad and I felt really bad. And then when she hung up, without asking for me, I felt awful. You see, I had a lot to talk to her about. That day I almost got killed when I was hit by a truck while riding my bike. And I wanted to tell her about that, but I never got the chance."
The poem concludes:
As I tried to reach you,
across the sea,
I tried to scream out
what I go through
how I have a gaping hole
how I stare at the mirror
and see the part of me
that you made,
I see also
the hole within me.
You must have this emptiness too;
an empty womb,
a deathly silence.
There are other stories, including the tale of a black girl mocked by her friends because her skin is dark and one about a Mexican girl tormented because her cousin is a gangbanger. While adults might find the show melodramatic, it has a perfect pitch for teenagers. And most performances are followed by a wide-ranging debate between the teenagers in the audience and the teenage actors and playwrights.
Teenagers interested in creating the next two shows should call MTW at 773-561-7100. The diversity play will be written after workshops and field trips and performed in the fall, the Holocaust play this summer. Not yet written, it will be based on the life of Barian Fry, a little-known American diplomat who rescued about 1,500 people from Nazi-occupied France. "Fry was sent to France with a list of artists to rescue, including Chagall, and ended up rescuing many more who weren't artists," says Palidofsky. "We'll be examining issues like, what does it take for an ordinary person to become a hero? And what's the relation of artists to our culture? Why would the Nazis think they could destroy a culture by killing the artists? And what does it mean to save Chagall and not just anybody? And why would someone want to get rid of Chagall?
"These issues are important to kids in Chicago even if they haven't heard of Chagall, or even the Holocaust." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mia Laboz, Luke Kummer, Gary Horne photo by Randy Tunnell.