Youth Saving Their Lives Through Theater

Those of us who work with young people know something else. Alongside the daily tragedies and frustrations there are also the daily miracles, the moment when one youth perseveres against all odds, another discovers her strength.
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I was fortunate to catch a most stunning new documentary film which has quietly premiered at a few film festivals and is about to go into broader distribution. Trust: Second Acts in Young Lives is one of those brilliant pieces which reminds us what documentary does best: captures small, specific stories which illuminate much broader issues and themes. This verité style is in fundamental contrast to the kind of big-message, big policy analysis documentary which presumes to lecture us about education, like Waiting for Superman.

It strikes me that the great stuff, the important stuff, with young people is not found in the test scores or the superintendent declarations or the political rhetoric. It is in the lived struggles of young people, children who are buffeted by the forces of globalization, repression, and sexual violence, that we can learn a thing or two about education and youth.

Trust allows us the privilege of a peek inside the workings of a small Chicago neighborhood theater program, Albany Park Theater Project (APTP). The theater attracts young people from the neighborhood, often immigrant students but always on low income, and sets them on a process of creation; building artistic expression from the real-life stories of the teens themselves.

The particular story in the film is told by a young woman named Marlin, who came to Chicago from Honduras in her early teens. Marlin shares her story in a group session with the young people in APTP and the group soon decides to construct their next play based on her story. She starts out nervously, "So I'm just gonna ask one thing. I don't want you guys to remember me like this. I want you guys to remember me like you met me and just the way I am, without telling this." The film follows the company of youths, led by charismatic and brilliant director David Feiner (assisted by Maggie Popadiak), as they absorb, process, reconstruct, and finally make art out of Marlin's story. David admonishes the teens, "Asking a person to share his or her life is a sacred responsibility." And they do indeed honor this responsibility and Marlin in their theater production.

Marlin is a young woman who has suffered all of the horrors that are the underside of the America of hope we hear so much about. With a broken economy in Honduras, her mother left her children and traveled to the US for work. Marlin is raped outside of her church in Honduras at 12 years old. She remembers thinking, "Where is Mom? Where is Dad? Where is God? This is his home and he's not even helping me." She soon makes the treacherous journey across Mexico and into the United States, packed standing-up in a trailer for 26 hours to find her mother in Chicago. There, she is repeatedly raped by her brother and neglected by social services and school. Descending into depression, heroin use, and suicidal thoughts by age 17, Marlin is committed to a hospital. Her time at APTP is her journey out of the nightmare, it is her artistic journey of empowerment.

The play the students create, Remember Me Like This, runs for 7 weeks. Marlin learns, through the power of theater, how to construct an identity away from the traumas that have defined her. The title of the documentary is appropriate. Students learn to trust in order to tell their stories; they trust each other, they trust the community, and ultimately they trust themselves. Marlin is shown a way to change her life by the actions of her peers. It reminds me of the powerful line of Sharon Olds from I Go Back to May, 1937, when she recalls the abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents: "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it."

Tremendous credit must go to filmmakers Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto, who discovered the incredible work that goes on at APTP and spent six years visiting, exploring and probing before they could finally get the documentary they wanted. Their struggle was always to find a theater cycle that was complete and had the arc of a story, from beginning to end, while capturing the key accomplishments of the group. They created over 60 edited versions of the first five years. Finally, with Marlin's story in the sixth year, everything came together. They made the difficult decision to jettison most of the footage shot in the first five years and stick with the final year. They made over 100 edits of this version. That's what it takes to really capture the moments -- and the essence -- of great theater and great education.

There are many reasons to be concerned with the state of education today, with the difficulties of students in under-resourced schools, trying to overcome harsh conditions at home which include lack of health care, jobs, or safety. But those of us who work with young people know something else. Alongside the daily tragedies and frustrations there are also the daily miracles, the moments when one youth perseveres against all odds, another discovers her strength or the whole group looks at itself and thinks, "We can really make beautiful things happen." When there are these moments, we are especially lucky if there is a witness, someone who sees it too and can carry that news forward. Trust captures a youth theater project at its most intimate and powerful moments, demonstrating the capacity of art to transform and inspire the lives of young people. Sometimes we see David and Maggie, who are true artists at creating these opportunities for empowerment, stopped in their tracks, in awe at the youth, their courage and resilience, their capacity to transform the world.

This is the kind of arts education to celebrate.

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