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Young Playwrights Theater: giving voice to youth

13 December 2010 No Comment

Patricia Smith Melton

by Patricia Smith Melton
Founder, Peace X Peace
Editor, Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women

Young Playwrights Theater (YPT) of DC has a lot to celebrate. On October 10, it was one of 14 organizations across the U.S. to receive the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from Michelle Obama at the White House. And 2010 is its 15th anniversary year.

YPT gives voice to students in the Washington, DC area by teaching them how to express themselves through writing plays. Then it matches the plays with professional directors and actors who perform them in schools, care centers, libraries, public theaters—even at the Kennedy Center, where in 2008 one play, “Chasing George Washington,” had a sold out three-week run in the Family Theater.

National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, White House, Washington DC

Fifteen years ago the YPT professional playwrights and teachers taught in two District high schools, working with approximately 50 students. This school year YPT is in 30 schools, including five in Virginia and two in Maryland, working with grade school, middle school, and high school students. To date, they have impacted 75,000 youth and community members.

YPT has worked with young men, 14 to 18 years of age, confined to the Oak Hill detention center on a play the youth titled “Choosing Change.” They created a play with DC’s homeless population about their lives and struggles. They often work with minority grade school students to create plays around the myths of their native cultures.

YPT gives voice to young people and has changed the lives of students, families, and audience members in ways they cannot measure.

David Snider, YPT’s current Producing Artistic Director and CEO, told me that “giving voice is recognizing the power of someone’s ideas, intuition, and abilities and offering them a bridge to bring it to the rest of the world. YPT often is working with students or populations who aren’t given that bridge, not by the educational system or the society we live in. Their ideas, what they want and need aren’t valued. We give young people a platform to speak.”

The demographics of the 1,000 students YPT is working with this year are 45% African-American and 35% Latino with the remaining 20% from cultures around the world, Ethiopia to China.

Now, working with Peace X Peace, connections are being made for a collaboration of playwriting between DC-area students, youth in Gaza, and students in Israel who are non-European Jews, Bedouin, or Palestinian.

For me, this is a circle. Sixteen years ago I woke one morning to read of yet one more youth murdered in a gang killing. I had to do something, and playwriting was what I knew. Talking with Karen Zacarias, who was in a playwrights group with me and who has become one of the most important playwrights in the U.S., we came up with an idea—go into the schools, teach playwriting, and then perform those plays professionally throughout the community. Then it was “just” an idea, now it is real. Karen (who was the founding director of YPT), David, the staff, and actors turned concept into substance.

A student excited about her character.

David said of connecting the DC-area students with Israeli and Gazan youth, “Having the power to communicate with students outside the U.S. is extremely empowering. It’s the keys to the kingdom. Not only does our government talk to their government and this company here to that company there, but also the youth would have the power to speak to each other and to learn about each other’s worlds and experience the differences and the commonalities. It is a bridge to human understanding and empathy when they can connect with people around the world and people around the block.”

I replied, “But, David, our government is not talking with the people governing Gaza, our companies are not talking with companies in Gaza, and we are not talking with minority groups in Israel.”

David, “So, then, the students will have more contact than governments or financial interests. It’s subversive, but in a good way. We can explore freedom, justice, change— the theme will emerge from the students when they start talking.”

I asked, “Can art bring peace?”

David laughed, “I don’t know what can bring peace. Peace is an extremely complicated equation, but I do think art brings dialogue and, if dialogue helps with peace, then art helps with peace. Art is the chance for people to connect in a sophisticated safe way about things that are extraordinarily personal.”

YPT works to inspire and prompt youth to bring their unheard inner monologues into the world to be shared, developed, empowered, and—this is important—to be seen in the context of relationship. That is, the issue that is in your face as a youth, whether teenage pregnancy, gang violence, loneliness for your “home country” or something else, can be put into the perspective of time, place, and other people. More and more often the plays the students write take their daily problems and put them into a larger context of a different time or place in history. With YPT staff guidance, the students can have some catharsis in expressing their problems and gain the required distance to examine them thoughtfully by seeing how their problems relate to other people and their problems.

David urges any teacher who wishes to learn more about YPT’s approach to contact him at bpribnow@yptdc.org.  The YPT curriculum is fully replicable and articulated, and the staff will talk with you about how to adjust or tweak it for your teaching situation.

On November 3rd I received YPT’s second annual Giving Voice award. I felt humbled in the face of the work done in the past fifteen years by the people who made the idea real.

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Watch the video of Patricia Smith Melton accepting the Giving Voice award here:

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