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Learning the power of art to uplift, inspire

Students from a small continuation school in East L.A. interview 1968 student activists, then write and read plays about courage, idealism and youth.

March 04, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Marissa Herrera, center, was among the professional actors who took part in a reading of short plays by East L.A continuation school students.
Marissa Herrera, center, was among the professional actors who took part… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Benjamin Villarreal is smart, well-spoken and surprisingly candid about his failings. He's nearly 18 now and trying to pick himself up after a series of mistakes he made when he was young and impressionable.

At 16, he says, he played cards and gambled in class. He was kicked out of an excellent public school and fell into the educational netherworld where those labeled as "bad kids" go.

He doesn't want that slide to continue.

"I'm afraid of not succeeding, of falling behind," he said. "I'm afraid of not being able to do what I really want to do."

Lucky for him, after he was briefly sent to a school he calls a prison, he met a lot of people who helped him to be brave.

This week, I found Benjamin Villarreal at a theater in Lincoln Heights, surrounded by those kind grown-ups from Monterey High, his small and excellent continuation school in East L.A.

The principal, teachers and actors who work there had all come to the theater to see Villarreal and his classmates in a moment of triumph: the performance of plays they'd written about courage, idealism and youth.

"I want to make this world better," one of the characters says in the play Villarreal co-wrote with Eneida Ortega. "I want to do what I love doing without anyone telling me it's wrong."

The staged reading with professional actors was the culmination of months of work in an intensive playwriting class led by experienced theater professionals.

The idea behind the program was simple. First, introduce seven smart but troubled teens to a group of men and women who, 40 years ago, witnessed the ultimate act of teenage rebellion: tens of thousands of Los Angeles students walking out of class to protest poor conditions in the schools. Then work with the students to dramatize their lives.

The result: a series of short plays called "2011 Meets 1968."

"I don't like this! I don't want anything bad to happen to my children," Ofelia Esparza, a teachers aide and parent in 1968, says to her son in a play written by Virginia Garcia and Jorge Leal, both 16. "But I know you feel you're doing the right thing."

Watching this work, and meeting the young playwrights at Monterey High, I felt proud to be an Angeleno. Because here in my hometown we still do a lot to help give people second chances. For the moment at least, we still have continuation schools, night schools and community colleges where those who step off the right path can get back on it again.

At Monterey High, and thanks to About Productions' Young Theaterworks program, a second chance includes learning the power of art to uplift and inspire.

"The things these kids have come up with are amazing," said Rose Portillo, a veteran actress of stage and screen who is Young Theaterworks' director. "There's humor, pathos, family."

On stage, the students from 40 years ago are humiliated for speaking Spanish. They argue with, and embrace, their overworked parents. They meet Robert F. Kennedy. And they confront skeptical teachers who feel they're wasting their time educating Mexican American students.

Michelle Sanchez, Diana Ortega and Oscar Lechuga wrote a play based on the life of Paula Crisostomo, a leader of the 1968 walkouts who was then an honor student at Wilson High.

"Mr. Thompson, I'm trying to find the area of a circle," the actress playing Crisostomo says. "What is pi? Three point oneā€¦?"

"Why worry, Paula?" the teacher answers. "The only pie you need to worry about is the one you're going to cook. You're not going to graduate. You're going to end up pregnant by the end of the summer."

For Ortega, 17, those words rang true. For years, she'd been a "troublemaker" in school, she told me. When she was in the fifth grade, a teacher told her, "You're going to wind up pregnant by the time you're 15."

After the walkout, Crisostomo graduated at the top of her class and went on to college and a distinguished university career.

In 2009, Ortega began attending continuation school and night school to make up for her lost years, completing nearly two years of credits in nine months. She recently transferred back to Garfield High. While at Monterey High, which has only 75 students, she got the kind of education students enjoy at a liberal arts college.

"We've talked to students here who've never been asked to revise an English paper," said Theresa Chavez, About Productions' artistic director. At Monterey High, the students learn that in theater, as in other literary arts, revision and repetition are half the battle.

On opening night, the students saw the reward of so much hard work: an audience in rapt attention for two hours, often laughing and crying. All the plays end happily, with the characters moving on to real-life careers as successful professionals.

It's a path Villarreal believes he and his fellow playwrights will emulate.

"Everyone makes mistakes. You wouldn't find these kind of people at Garfield or Schurr," Villarreal told me, listing the schools he and the others had been kicked out of. "They're kind of the outcasts, but the good ones."

Courage comes from knowing you're not alone, Villarreal told me. And from understanding you have a responsibility to give something back to your community. That's what he learned, he says, from the onetime student activist he interviewed, Luis Torres, who became an award-winning television journalist.

The play Villarreal co-wrote about Torres contains a bit of fantasy: the explorer Christopher Columbus emerges from one of Torres' textbooks to inspire the teenage Torres during a moment of indecision.

Columbus, played by actor Daniel Chacon, recites a line written by teenagers who've learned, the hard way, what wisdom sounds like.

"Be brave, son!" the explorer says. "Remember: What we do here echoes in eternity."

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