It takes a bit of courage to perform on stage before a packed auditorium. It takes something more when the auditorium is filled with grade-school classmates and the play draws on personal experiences that students often conceal from ridicule.
More than 40 Akron students in grades 4-8 did just that, drawing on their own encounters with bigotry, racism and the sometimes degrading acts of insensitive peers.
They took their experiences to the Miller South School for the Performing Arts stage this week, airing their reservations and celebrating humanity in the Diversity Play, which will be performed for the public at 7 p.m. today at the school on East Avenue (an admission will be charged) and 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Paul A. Daum Theatre in the University of Akron’s Kolbe Hall (free).
“A lot of these kids were risking revealing their personal feeling,” said India Burton, the play’s co-director. “They revealed it in front of the students they go to school with every day.”
Burton is the director of Ma’Sue Productions — an African-American theater company. She and fellow UA theater graduate Wendy Duke, a 21-year drama teacher at Miller South, directed the show, which features some scenes written entirely by students.
The play takes a candid stab at diversity. It’s part of Miller South’s drama program, which often tackles controversial and sensitive topics. Following racially charged incidents like the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Duke saw the intrinsic benefit of having her students face their stereotypes and misconceptions.
There was one problem.
“There just aren’t any plays written on this subject for this age group,” said Duke, who met with Burton over the summer to develop the idea.
The women felt the play would have a deeper meaning for the audience and the actors if the students produced the content by openly dramatizing their own humiliating and demeaning experiences.
Carolyn Behrman, a professor in UA’s Anthropology and Classical Studies department, coaxed those guarded thoughts out of the students by assembling “Story Circles.” In each circle, the students shared deep-seated concerns.
An Asian student told classmates about the time he was pelted with chopsticks as he rode his bicycle home from Hardesty Park. A group of young girls talked about what it meant to be called “ghetto.”
“It was really, really deep. We didn’t know each other all that well,” said Nia Clark, an eighth-grader who said the experience changed her forever.
Nia said she now thinks twice before she talks. She’s more empathetic and no longer sits idly when she witnesses derogatory behavior.
Against the backdrop of civil-rights leaders, the experiences shared in the group came alive onstage, with interchangeable roles forcing mutual understanding.
Black students slipped into lighter skin. A fit young girl portrayed the emotional weight of obesity. Three girls, in shades of dark to pale, embraced being women.
A boy-girl duo portrayed a young black couple shopping for a home in a white neighborhood, where doors often slammed shut. When the two found a home, the neighbors — portrayed by white actors — said they were fleeing for the suburbs.
Male students of all races took turns standing on the “Mountaintop” with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Female actors leaning on canes helped the spirit of Sojourner Truth ask, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
The play also tackled contemporary issues, like labeling associated with ADHD and depression, or how a black woman feels when someone is surprised that she expresses no desire to twerk, or shamelessly gyrate her lower body.
As one actor put it: “Just because I live in the city and I listen to rap doesn’t mean I’m ‘ghetto.’ It just means I live in the city and I listen to rap.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.