The Young Playwrights’ Theater is a revelation. Originally founded by playwright Karen Zacarías seventeen years ago, YPT’s After-School Playwriting Program won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2010. That’s a pretty big deal given that the award was presented by First Lady, Michelle Obama at the White House.
Anyone who still thinks that “No Child Left Behind” has any sense to it at all needs to go to YPT’s website and see the studies showing astonishing improvement in the communication and language skills of students who participate in YPT’s programs. Instead of grinding out test scores adequate enough to hang on to precious funding, the students are, in collaboration with a dedicated team of professional actors, directors and teachers, writing plays. That’s right, they are learning more about the fundamentals of sentence structure, grammar and expressing themselves clearly and succinctly by writing plays than they would ever learn from English 101.
Last night, I walked into the GALA Hispanic Theatre on 14th Street not having the faintest idea of what to expect. What I got was four almost staged readings of one act plays written respectively by an eighth grader (Anna Vargas), a ninth grader (Erica Branch) and two high school students (Milkyas Tessema and Diana Argueta).
With all due respect to the well-heeled professional companies in D.C., these kids wrote some of the freshest, most vibrant, and flat-out funny theatre that I have seen since last summer’s Fringe Festival. I was completely engaged and often doubled over in laughter throughout the all too short evening. And I was astonished to find out that the six actors from their professional company came in at 10 in the morning, rehearsed all day and put on the performance at 7 in the evening.
The performers are all young and intentionally so. YPT wants their budding playwrights to see their words come out of the mouths of those that are at least within spitting distance of being their contemporaries. Remarkable and often downright ingenious performances were turned in by Dawn Thomas, Wendy Nogales, Jasmin Johnson, Andres Talero, Felipe Cabezas and Edward Daniels.
By the way, if you want still more jaw-dropping information about this wondrous theatrical undertaking, try this on for size (and then go to their website and read it all): 35% of YPT’s students speak English as a second language, 64% live at or near the national poverty level, 98% qualify for the Free School Lunch program and 95% attend schools that receive Title 1 Federal Assistance.
Unfortunately, I cannot tell you to drop everything and run to the GALA theatre tonight because this was truly a one night stand. In April (23 & 24) they will produce their annual New Play Festival. They start with around 700 plays, winnow them down to 26 finalists and then work them through until there are about 12 left to be turned into fully produced plays at the Festival (costumes, sets and six whole weeks of rehearsal!). Five or six of these will be chosen to be taken on The Express Tour which goes out every fall.
Next up for Producing Artistic Director and CEO Snider is to procure the funding needed to get the plays published. He has a vision of teen written plays being produced in high schools all over the country as a way for youth in other cities to see a little of Washington, D.C. through the eyes of their contemporaries; and get excited about how similar their experiences are (and they just might get motivated enough to start their own YPT program in the process).
Did I mention that I had a thoroughly joy-filled evening being with these young people as they spoke to their own (most of the audience were friends and other participants in the program) through their own creative voices? St. Francis, in his very famous prayer, says “…where there is despair, let me sow hope…” Our world is not a pretty place right now and the outright lying and demagoguery being practiced by the denizens of Capital Hill are enough to make a grown man cry. I got a big hit of hope last night, and I will definitely be going back for more.
Put April 23 and 24, 2012 at 7:30pm at the GALA Hispanic Theatre in your calendar now.
Mad Love (An Anti-Valentine’s Day Performance):
Best Friends are Forever by Anna Vargas, Swanson Middle School
Destined for One Love by Milkyas Tessema, Bell Multicultural School
Every Love Is Not Meant To Be by Erica Branch, Ballou High School
Crazy in Love by Diana Argueta, Bell Multicultural School
Directed by Jess Jung, Nicole Jost and Brigitte Pribnow Moore
Produced by Young Playwright’s Theater
Reviewed by Larry Bangs