Emoting that comes direct from the heart can grab you in the heart, even twist your gut. It’s real. You want to reach out and hug the participants in thanks. That’s what I felt, last Friday night, watching the ensemble of 27 young people, 13 to 18 years old, who participated in Paso Nuevo’s six-week summer extravaganza, Slaves To Society/Esclavos De La Sociedad.
Millennials are the kids born from 1981 to the early 2000’s who are growing up now. These are the turn-of-the-century kids, in high school, or entering college or the work force – the next generation that replaces the Baby Boomers as they retire. In the mainstream media, the generation Joel Stein in his Time cover story referred to as the “Me Me Me Generation.” The millennials are labeled narcissistic and self-centered, “….whose selfishness technology has only exacerbated.” They are the kids you see in the Metro, walking on sidewalks, gazing downward texting on their cell phones.
Yet the Paso Nuevo variety show with a downbeat title, Slaves To Society/Esclavos A La Sociedad, smashed that assumption to smithereens , and left me and others, with an upbeat message. This one evening of 23 original monologues, skits, dreamed up and written in English, with some Spanish by the young people themselves, based on their lives, their hopes and anxieties, made a powerful impact. Barriers were broken. Strangers talked to me during my metro ride home after the show.
A prologue of rap rock music and poetry by the Power of the Pen Hip Hop Theatre Ensemble from FRESHH, Inc. thrust us into the middle of mean streets and the violence theme in “Say her name.” Eleven women, dressed in black leotards, marched to the order of “Sound off,” and rhythmically chanted names of victims: One young woman shot in the back of the head, and another ended up in a jail cell dead. As for the police officers? “All charges dropped,” or released with a court verdict of “involuntary manslaughter.”
Another young woman cried out: “There’s a war going on out there against African American women.” Yet along with an openly angry response from the rap, we heard a cry of fear from one young woman:: “Please, Lord, don’t let me be misunderstood. Because I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.”
Post-prologue, Alina Collins Maldonado, the Paso Nuevo director, led us into the main event. And during this powerful performance, there were high points, dealing with stereotypes. What needed to be said, got said. No holding back about the difference between the worlds of light-skinned people and the world of people of color.
August 7, 2015
GALA Hispanic Theatre Slaves To Society/Esclavos A La Sociedad, an original work
by Young Artists of the Tivoli Theatre Community
Participating in the Paso Nuevo Summer Program
Directed by Alina Collins Maldonado
Produced by the GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Theatre
One young woman spoke to us from the center stage apron: “You look at me and assume that because I’m white, I’m rich and I’m a racist.” Later this recitation was emphasized by the comment:: “Oh, he’s white. He must be rich. He must be racist.” In another monologue, we heard the answer on how to confront this bias. “Don’t judge people just by looking at them……Try to get to really know people first, their story, their legacy, their history.”
Maldonado described the creative process that went on for six intense weeks among the group of about 27 young people. Together they sat in a circle and looked into each others’ eyes, minds and souls, and talked about who they were. What was hardest for these youngsters, who were strangers at the start of summer, was opening up and sharing experiences. Then it was even harder for them to stage and share it for us in the community, Maldonado said.
Let’s back up to the beginning for a moment. On a darkened stage, groups of four or five people huddled together. “You can’t do it.” “You’re not good enough” was projected from speakers and among the participants, tapes teenagers play repeatedly in their heads. Then one actor named Adonis in “Hello”, wandered among the groups, now flooded with stage light, “Why are you so quiet?” “Do we speak for you?” “In the news, they shot someone who looked like me.” “What happened to you?” Then with a scene change, the ensemble entered with classroom chairs and shared their journals.
Mark Zuckerberg (b.1984) founded Facebook, the social networking network that is supposed to bring people closer together. Contradictory to that claim comes the realization that Facebook isolates people. “It should be called the anti-social network….. We’re in a world where we look down on our phones.” one student said in an aside to the audience.
He’s got a point. When we don’t relate to each other, we fall back on stereotyped thinking. The message is clear: We have to connect with each other, not isolate. Underneath the violence, what is really being said is: “I’m scared, I’m alone, I’m doubtful.” And we have to break down the misunderstandings about each other.
This well-planned program came full circle until there’s a new insight. “You may shoot me with your eyes, but still I’ll rise,” cries another young woman, an echo from the rap group’s message about police violence. The scenes built to the last passionate monologue, timed with dramatic stage lighting, about starting something new. The realization is reached that “Life is amazing. You can do it.” By the end of this program I concluded that these young people , the Me, Me Me kids, possess an impressive optimism and confidence that boils over into an amazing resilience. They can confront and connect with others and resolve the problems of violence, even teenage pregnancy and the tough economic environment. The Paso Nuevo participants don’t have to be rock stars who make billions. They are good, wholesome American kids who will build society.
The post-show discussion had an inspired moment when an audience member asked: “What have you gotten out of this past six weeks?” The answer: “Selfish writing… Then you give it to others.” Wow, I thought. There is a positive energy and willingness to take on responsibility through cooperative effort.
These Paso Nuevo workshops founded 29 years ago by Washington D.C. community activist and poet, Quique Aviles, do important work. There’s a reason the Paso Nuevo won the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented to them in the White House by First Lady Michele Obama, on November 19, 2012.
Three Paso Nuevo workshops are held at GALA each year: Fall, Spring and Summer sessions for Latino youth ages 12 – 19.
Details are here.