NEWARK — For most teens, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday means a chance to sleep in and catch up on homework.
Not so for the Justice Organization for Youth (JOY) members, who not only awoke early last Monday but disregarded frigid temperatures to lead a workshop on incorporating experiences of oppression into performance pieces.
JOY (described as a high school youth empowerment group) works under the tutelage of Gabriela Quintanilla of Rural and Migrant Ministries and its 10 members — all high school students — have been meeting weekly in Lyons since last fall. Most of the students attend Sodus High School, but one is from Newark and another from Marion.
For five months they worked on developing their own play, which was written and performed collaboratively and touched on racism in school, gender identity and immigration. In creating the play, titled “I Am …,” the students drew heavily on some of their own experiences and decided to place their drama in a school setting. Last week, the group performed “I Am …” later in the afternoon.
Last Monday, their main job was to share with other youth and adults that playwriting process. And although Quintanilla is their leader, the students ran the workshop themselves — from speaking publicly, leading games and even overseeing brainstorming sessions as the participants took a stab at creating their own skits.
In introducing themselves and their mission — which is to effect systemic change through theater — the students shared their own stories.
Sharon Jaramillo, a 10th-grader at Marion High School, recalled the time when as a sixth-grader a fellow student put a poster on her locker with stereotypical comments about a Mexican girl.
“It’s kind of hard to say it now because it still hurts,” Jaramillo said. “I thought, ‘why is she targeting me just because I’m different?’ I was really young and I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Sodus High School senior Dakota Hinchman, who is biracial, shared his experience of asking someone out, only to be rebuffed because that person didn’t want to date someone who was black.
“That messed me up for a little while,” he said.
One woman who attended the workshop with her biracial daughter shared that she had been called a “guinea” because of her Italian heritage and had also been treated differently because she married a black man.
“I live through my children, too,” the woman said, her voice cracking. “When they come home from school crying, it’s hard to talk about.”
But talking about those experiences are critical to change, and the young adults believe doing so through theater is a powerful way to effect change. They were mentored by Heather May, associate professor of theater at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, and Hinchman said it’s important to be open to feedback and constructive criticism.
His first words of advice were to hone in on the personal experience you want to share, whether it’s positive or negative.
“What do you want your audience to take away from this?” he asked.
Other suggestions included:
• Making your characters relatable and establishing a role for each one.
• Making the script gritty and dramatic, but keeping it “real.”
• Keeping the play’s themes clear throughout the performance.
• Being prepared for the play to change over time as ideas develop. This group’s first iteration of its play started with the concept of racial profiling and a larceny in a supermarket; it eventually evolved to racist encounters in a school.
• Speaking slowly, concisely and clearly.
“You can have a really powerful message, but if the audience can’t hear you it can be lost,” Hinchman said.
In addition to sharing their thoughts on playwriting, the young adults led team-building games including one called “The Line.” Participants stood in a line and stepped forward when they could answer “yes” to a question that was posed. Those questions ran the gamut, from whether they owned a dog or had a sister to if they had ever experienced racism or stereotyping.
“Even though we’re all different, many of us have experienced the same type of things,” Jaramillo pointed out.
That became clear when the participants split into two groups and started working on their own skits.
One group settled on the theme of sexism and used their experiences in gym class to come up with their skit. Whether a person of color or not, all could relate to the scene of a girl being wide open in a basketball game but not being chosen to receive a pass. The group brainstormed ideas, dialogue and characters — each touching on something they had experienced or witnessed in a similar situation.
Quintanilla said the integration of personal stories into the performances is essential to the group’s mission.
In addition, JOY is made up of students from different school districts who came together not just to create a play, but to perform it and then engage their audience in its message and what it means to them.
“How special is that?” Quintanilla said. “In all of these three things, it’s a very powerful group.”