Nervous whispers drift out into the auditorium. Feet scratch against set pieces as students move into their places. A single eye peers between the red curtains, gauging how many people are watching before scurrying away.
It’s Friday, opening night for ASU Preparatory Academy’s performance of famous poet and young adult author Gary Soto’s musical “In & Out of Shadows.” The play is about high-school students in California from Mexico and Asia who entered or were brought into the United States illegally. Frustrated by their legal status, the students decide to attend a conference on Assembly Bill 540, which allows California students without proper documentation to attend college and pay resident tuition.
For many of the approximately 30 students in the performance, this is their first time on stage. It’s also ASU Prep’s first ever play production.
They have been rehearsing since November and working on basic drama techniques in the school’s first drama class since August of last year. Since the students returned from winter break in January, most have been rehearsing more than 10 hours every week between class time and after-school and weekend practices.
One of the main topics they focused on is determining their purpose on stage and letting that affect everything they do while on stage, whether its delivering a line, doing a physical action or just listening to other characters.
“Your purpose on stage is to create conflict, like the bigger the conflict, the more interesting the scene will be,” Alina Cao, 16, said.
Cao plays a Filipino mother in the play who is held by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.
“I just think our stories are really interesting, how it goes through not just the Mexican-American side of immigration but it really develops other stories like the Filipino side and there’s one character who’s Chinese,” Cao said. “It’s just like different perspectives on immigration and people who are here who have struggled to get here.”
She said it was important to the students to preserve the racial diversity of the play’s characters. They decided early on to match students to characters of similar ethnicities or backgrounds.
One of the student actors, Misael, 16, is living in Arizona without proper documentation. He said he is able to get a job but can’t get his driver’s license. Being able to work and support his family is something important to both Misael and his character, Juan One.
Juan One crossed into California from Tijuana through a sewer. After failing to cross the border once already, he did not want to have to return home to his family and explain why he could not manage to cross.
“It was very easy for me to relate to my character because me and him went through a lot,” Misael said. “It’s easier for me to portray that character into real life. Everything that’s going on … I felt that. I felt what he felt.”
Soto wrote the musical at the request of Emily Klion, the director of the Marsh Youth Theater in San Francisco. He read interviews with students and spoke with them himself, going through a total of 37 drafts of the play, a process he described as “endless.” Soto said he wanted to do the students’ stories justice, though, especially with such a controversial topic.
Production director and drama class teacher Andrea Enger said she first thought about putting on the play after seeing a clip of it at the Dia de los Ninos festival on the ASU Tempe campus. Soto shared a clip of the song “Just 14” that Enger said moved her to tears.
Soto flew in to attend the Friday performance of the play. He spoke with the students before and after to thank them for performing his work and answer any questions they might have had.
“They were just gaga over me, but in turn I’m just gaga over them,” Soto said with a smile. “I’m looking at them like ‘You guys are so cute!’ so it’s kind of reciprocal, where we feed off each other in a really positive way.”
When they first started rehearsing, Enger had the students share how they connected with their characters.
“I think that a lot of them are discovering more about their own identities when they’re up there,” she said. “Students are learning that even though they’ve been categorized thus far as the quiet student, that’s not a role that they have to maintain all of the time and they are capable of doing what they want to do when they want to do it.”
Dwayne Martin, 17, plays the character of Felix, a Filipino student and Cao’s son. Felix is caught between the respectful son and brother he is at home and the cool teenager he is around his friends. Martin said a lot of teens can relate to these dual roles.
“Teenagers, we’re in the middle state between childhood and adulthood so there’s a lot of changes going on,” he said.
In the play, Felix acts as a catalyst, trying to motivate his peers to stand up and get their voices heard. In playing a character that’s more vocal than he is, Martin said he got to learn more about how to express himself.
“This is all new and fresh to me, which is really exciting because as a person I’m kind of developing and I’m not afraid to show myself to people, so it takes away that insecurity,” Martin said.
Enger said she was originally approached a year ago about teaching a drama class at ASU Prep as a “trial run.” She’s always tried to incorporate elements of performance in her English classes, citing a love for drama and experience on stage.
Being asked to teach the drama class was a dream come true, Enger said, but it didn’t compare to being asked a few weeks ago to teach drama full-time starting in the fall. Enger said the school’s administration told her the drama class was the most popular elective at the school.
“I’m so proud of how far they’ve come,” Enger said of her students. “If we have this standard of excellence in the class then these other actors are just going to rush to be as good as they are. It’s going to be a great program. These are good people who work so hard, and I’m the luckiest woman to be with them. I just feel lucky, I feel so lucky.”
Misael added that the play has changed his perspective on the world by showing him that everybody has their own story that affects their actions and thoughts. Some states are more tolerant of students like himself, and people can learn a lot by studying those differences.
“Just to know that I’m not the only one out there that’s just like me, there’s a lot of other scenarios that are worse than mine or better than mine,” Misael said. “The only message that I have to people out there that are just like me is keep fighting. There’s going to be a change, I just know it.”
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