In the basement of Central High School, the members of Central Touring Theatre spend two hours a day in the Black Box Theatre. They wrote a play called "I'll Take You There" during the first part of the school year, and now they're performing the play on tour.
This isn't a traditional play. It's a series of scenes dealing with issues that the students feel are important.
In one scene, called "white girl", a group of students are in a classroom taking a test, when a white student calls an African-American student "black girl". The other African-American students in the class lash out at the white student, and one calls her "K-K-Katie". At the end of the scene, the students say, "Don't call me by my race. Call me by my name. Yes, it's just a color. But it hurts me just the same."
One student talks about how her dark skin has brought her nothing but pain and name-calling. The members of Central Touring Theatre, or CTT, said they don't tiptoe around difficult issues like race.
"We like to make people feel uncomfortable," said senior Kyle Johnson, who plays a preacher in the play. Johnson said CTT tries to cross the line. Another senior, Teika Richardson, explains that students write about controversial topics so that people will talk about them.
"We know we're not going to change the world by our play," said Richardson. "But we're going to put it out there where a discussion will start, which when discussion starts, that's when the world starts to change."
There have been plenty of feisty discussions in this class. Students spent a couple of days talking about the Virginia Tech shootings, a subject many high school classes ignored. They talked about Hurricane Katrina last fall, and one white student said something that offended African-American students, so they worked out their disagreement.
The class talked about homosexuality, and two students came out in the class. One of them is senior Danez Smith, who helped write a scene about a student who's questioned about why he's gay. Smith said the members of CTT may spend a week hashing out a scene, and the conversation gets much more emotional than it would in any other class. Smith remembered when the class talked about their fathers, most of whom are absent from their lives.
"I think the day we talked about fathers was the day when half of the class was crying. I don't think we're ever too scared to shy away from a topic, it's just that when it's a topic that's very touchy, it's like," Smith pretends to cry. "Skip my daddy! He was never there for me! I'm never gonna be a father like that!"
All that emotion poured into several scenes about fathers in the play. In one scene, a daughter vents about all the things she wishes she could tell her absent father. Ebony Black and several other students rehearsed the father-daughter scene outside Central High School.
"I'm sorry for being born and ruining your life," said Black. "I'm sorry that my mother isn't the woman you wanted to make your wife. I'm sorry, daddy, that I wasn't a good enough daughter to make you want to stay. I thought that if I told you this, you'd forgive me and come visit me some day."
The CTT members were waiting for a bus to take them to a performance at a St. Paul middle school. The bus was late, and there was a chance it might not come at all, so CTT director Jan Mandell told her students to use this time to work on scenes. Mandell said she tries to teach her students how to deal with conflict, and how to solve problems when glitches arise.
"Even more important than the play is the conversations the kids have, and even more important right here, is how calm they are in the midst of all this crisis," Mandell said as they waited for the bus. "Not that it's a big crisis, but they could get antsy or they could get angry with each other. And that's what I've really worked on with them, too, is being calm in the midst of the storm, because then you can think clearly, whether it's trying to pass a test, or breaking up with your girlfriend or you don't get in a college you want."
This particular crisis was soon resolved. The bus finally arrived, and students headed to Battle Creek Middle School. On the bus, Teika Richardson said Central Touring Theatre has saved her educational career. She attended a predominantly white suburban high school her freshman year, and said she was the subject of some racist comments.
"I kind of lost all the ambitions that I had for education my freshman year," Richardson said. "And then coming and being in Jan's class, and learning all this other stuff, it keeps me awake in class. It helps me remember stuff. Because I have a really bad memory, but using the stuff that she has us do in the class to remember lines and stuff, I use that in my history class and my math class, and it helps me a whole lot."
Richardson said she's on track to graduate. She plans to major in English education and theater in college, and wants to have Mandell's job some day.
When the students arrive at Battle Creek Middle School, they rehearse one last time, eat pizza, dance around on stage, and warm up. As the middle school students file into the auditorium, the CTT members go backstage for some pre-show instructions from Mandell.
"Your energy is really good," Mandell said. "What I'm saying is, you may have a tendency of going over the top, which means your enthusiasm will miss the emotional connections."
The restless teenagers can't wait to get onstage and perform. Once the performance of "I'll Take You There" gets underway, it's clear they have an attentive audience. The middle school students seem riveted, and they react audibly to the racial jabs.
In one scene about male insecurities, junior Jamal Rogers looks at his reflection, played by Danez Smith. His reflection talks back to him and confirms all his fears.
"Man, you're pitiful. You make me sick just looking at you," Smith tells Rogers. "You look like God's only mistake. Just look at your face. It's too black, it's too bumpy, it's just too ugly."
Rogers said he helped write that scene because he wanted to show that men have insecurities too, even if they don't talk about them.
"The reflection is actually my father," said Rogers. "I let my reflection bring me down, he's trying to really tear down my character, and that's what he does in real life. So when I look in the mirror, I don't see myself, I see my father."
Rogers said he can relate to almost every scene in the play. After the show, some of the Battle Creek students told the CTT cast what they think of the performance. One student said she liked the "white girl" scene, another said it's one of the best plays he's ever seen. CTT member Ebony Black said the audience feedback tells the performers when their play has hit home and affected people.
"And even if no one mentions my personal scene, maybe they feel for someone else's scene in the class. And that's our goal," Black said. "That means we've accomplished our goal when we hear back from the audience."
Black said CTT has helped her sort out her problems and express herself in a more positive way. Central Touring Theatre will perform another five times this year at area schools and colleges.