SANTA ANA — From the stage of Santa Ana High School's auditorium, the preacher appealed to his audience.
"We want you to respect what God is doing tonight," pleaded Pastor John Sebreros of Victory Outreach in Santa Ana, a church that rehabilitates drug addicts and gang members. As his voice reached the passionate tones of a revivalist minister, his message touched potential new converts.
"Those of you that want something great, who want something to touch you and free you and something new, raise your hand right now. Come. I want to see you raise your hand," Sebreros urged.
And with those words, about two dozen arms slowly rose among a sea of bodies filling the 1,500-seat auditorium. Within minutes, the listeners walked onto the stage to pray with the preacher and about 20 other former gang members who were waiting behind the stage's scrim.
Among those joining the group on stage was Lorenzo Alaman, 24, a former gang member from Anaheim. "There is an alternative to gang violence," he said.
The youths had been drawn to prayer by what they had witnessed in the preceding two hours--a chilling play performed by former gang members and drug addicts depicting the horrors of gang life.
The "Duke of Earl II"--staged Friday and Saturday evenings at Santa Ana High School--portrays the rivalry between two gang leaders fighting over drug trafficking territory.
The opening scene quickly turns into a gun battle, with actors fanning out through the audience in a chase. As the play continues, more guns are drawn, knives are brandished, and the lives of the characters are ruined.
Violence is prevalent throughout the play. One character suffers a crippling injury in the opening gun battle, another loses an eye, and bodies are carried away in black bags--lives lost in a battle over who will rule the territory and wear the army-green jacket with "Duke" written on the back.
But its overarching message is simple: The only way out of a life filled with violence and drug abuse is to turn to God.
The play, a sequel to "Duke of Earl," is based on the experiences of Pastor Ed Morales, a former gang member from Fullerton who now ministers for Victory Outreach in San Jose.
Alaman, the former Anaheim gang member, came to watch the play Friday because his cousin was a cast member. And like the character played by his cousin, who was shot for being in the "wrong" gang territory, Alaman was shot twice while cruising through Santa Ana two years ago. Another cousin was shot once.
Pointing to a scar near his ear, Alaman said the shooting gave him reason to quit his gang after a 10-year affiliation.
Now, he was sealing the anti-gang pledge with prayer. "I felt I wanted to accept God in my life," he said after walking onto the stage.
There were others who did not join the prayer group but said they were nonetheless impressed by the "real life" quality of the play.
"This year I stopped gang-banging and I stopped going to my neighborhood," said Javier Trejo, 16, of Stanton. "It was not just hurting me. All of a sudden it was (also hurting) my family, you know."
While Javier did not join in prayer, he said he did not think the play preached too much.
"It was good. It's teaching the youngsters what's going on and not to join gangs; to stay out of trouble," Javier said.
Aileen Hernandez, 14, and Carrie Euge, 15, both of Irvine, said they have friends who are gang members.
"It was very real what we saw up there," Carrie said. "It was good."
Teresa Fata, 19, of Santa Ana, had seen the play once before and planned to return the following evening. Each time, she said, she was taking her 15-year-old sister, Sarah, to reinforce the anti-gang message.
"We stay out of trouble, but it's good to send the message out," the older Fata said. "I think it's just perfect."