Toto, I've Got a Feeling We're Not in Berkeley Anymore

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When the usual Friday nighters started e-mailing back and forth to plan the evening's shenanigans, I informed them, "Donovan and I are going to go see high school girls perform The Laramie Project, but we will join you afterward." Admittedly, the prospect of a student production of an epic play about the death of Matthew Shepard sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke—indeed, Gabriel wrote a snarky reply: "I will be joining you a little late. I'm going to a staged version of The Sorrow and the Pity performed by Mrs. Thankerstein's kindergarten through 2nd grade class (it's a Waldorf school)." And Jonny added: "I'm going to be late too, as I'll be seeing a version of Bergman's The Seventh Seal performed entirely by toddlers dressed as monkeys."

Let me give you background on how this night transpired:

Last year somebody at East West Players (the Los Angeles theater that's produced two of my world premiere plays and also recruits me to teach playwriting) told me that a high school in Pasadena, California (yes, where the little old lady is from), had performed The Theory of Everything. I was a bit startled by the information for several reasons: (1) I don't check in with my publisher enough, so I had no idea that the production even happened; (2) the play deals with complex issues of race with an all-Asian (and adult) cast—I didn't know how the hell they possibly cast all Asian-Americans (seven! that's like the population of some Asian countries!) or if they (GASP!) cast Caucasians in an artistic faux pas that's not too far-fetched (I mean, the local playhouse several blocks from my Glendale home recently had a white guy prance around on stage as the King of Siam—I'm not kidding); and (3) Westridge School is an all-girls school—all girls in a co-ed play, WTF?!

I contacted the drama teacher several weeks after the production, and he told me that it was highly successful (with all Asian Americans and Shakespearian gender-crossing) on many levels and that it had a tremendous effect on those involved but also on those who saw it. If you'll recall from my podcasting efforts, I eventually went out to the school to speak to the students in their jaw-dropping, state-of-the-art auditorium. (They also have a nifty black box.)

Anyway, the drama teacher recently invited me to come see their production of The Laramie Project. I saw the play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre years ago, and the thing I remember most about that production was that they created rain on stage. I was like, "Hells yeah! There's rain on the mofo stage!" The production was powerful, sure, but, honestly, it did not move me as deeply as watching these amazingly talented girls perform (and tech) this show. (Donovan has already scooped me on how great the production was.) He and I were crying and crying during the show like...like...like high school girls!

Aside from the assured direction and obvious talent of those involved, I think what also significantly contributed to the success of the production was the fact that young girls saying the words recorded by the Tectonic Theater Project (the group that created this piece of documentary theater) seemed to preserve the purity of the text—text unvarnished by layers of age and life experience just "pop" off the stage in an almost paradoxical way.

The play was difficult to watch again because of the subject matter, sure, but it also stirred up memories of the time I was assaulted, knocked unconscious, and left bleeding from the head on the sidewalk several years ago (in what some have assumed was a racially motivated attack). I've never written about the incident publicly because I never saw the benefit of making people fear for their lives. "That's not the kind of world I live in," I always used to say. But it happened, and perhaps I will write about it someday after I've been able to make some sense out of it and after I can see it as not perpetuating a culture of fear.

...And then high school girls can perform it and change the world!

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BAMBOO NATION: Toto, I've Got a Feeling We're Not in Berkeley Anymore
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