The auditorium of Park High School in Cottage Grove is packed. It's diversity day. The students are enjoying a break from classes, which have been replaced with music, food and cultural events.
One of the highlights is the arrival of St. Paul Central's Touring Theater company - or CTT. The teen actors immediately get the attention of the students with their mix of dance, song and hard hitting scenes.
In the course of an hour, the CTT performers work through scenes dealing with everything from child labor to having gay parents to body image.
For Park High Senior Jessica Kadec, it was good to hear the actors confront things she never hears openly talked about at school.
"I'm glad they came," said Kadec. "People were crying! It was amazing! It was touching for Park to see such things happen here."
By the end of the year the CTT will have performed this show 25 times to approximately 10,000 students and adults. It's last performances will be given to the general public this weekend on the Concordia College campus in St. Paul.
Jan Mandell has run CTT for 30 years now. Each year the kids who sign up for her class create a new show, based on what they see happening in their own lives. Often the scenes deal with racism, sexuality, drugs, and family problems.
But Mandell says this year is different.
"This year's play 'We are called to speak' is the first to be done that involves so much outside the scope of their lives," says Mandell. "They took a look at health care, global warming, sweatshops, and the war in Iraq. This group just had a vision bigger than most."
Nora Brand is a senior at Central, and she's undergone surgery twice this year. While in the hospital she was struck by what she witnessed.
"I saw people who were very concerned with how they were going to pay for their hospital stay or how they were going to pay for treatment or the medication that they were going to get," said Brand. "It's a big issue, and I really believe that everyone in this country and all over the world they should have access to the care that they need to be a healthy person."
Brand did research on health care and helped create a scene for the show that dealt with the difficulties of getting treatment for those who can't afford insurance.
"I think that CTT has definitely made me more engaged in my community and more engaged in social justice issues, picking out inequalities and things I don't agree with in the world at large and to not feel completely powerless," said Brand. "So I definitely feel that I will continue to use art to convey my opinion and convey how I think the world can be a better place."
Brand says she's learned a lot about cooperation, working with so many dynamic personalities from different communities, and it's been a good lesson in how to find common ground.
Khymyle Mims is also a senior, and has wanted to join CTT since he saw them perform in elementary school. He says performing in 'We are called to Speak' has taught more than just acting.
"I mean like the global warming thing," said Mims. "At first at the beginning of the year I didn't know too much, I didn't care too much about it. Now I'm like banging people upside of the head saying 'You've got to recycle this - this stuff is plastic! You keep throwing it away we're going to die, man!'"
Mims plays a young man deciding between college and gang life.
The experience has made Mims more careful about his own behavior.
"Being this guy who's struggling to decide between right and wrong, and I put on a show about doing the right thing and then I turn around and do something that could be portrayed as the wrong thing - it makes me watch what I'm doing, because I know that I'm representing something that's big," said Mims.
Mims and the other members of CTT say they've grown a lot in the past year, and they're more prepared to take on the responsibility of adulthood. For many, this fall will be their first chance to vote in an election. And they feel called to speak.