Actors inspire young writers at tribal school

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DESMET, Idaho – Adults who spend time with middle school kids may find themselves exasperated now and then, wondering, “What the heck are they thinking?” Meanwhile, the youth become frustrated when they aren’t understood. The opposite occurred recently when nine students from the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School wrote monologues about their closest relationships and greatest wishes, and their works were read before audiences by professional actors who traveled to the reservation from Los Angeles for the occasion.

The young Native playwrights are Sophia George and Patrick Thomas, Colville; Keisha SiJohn, Kelsey SiJohn, Armondo Garcia, Gina DeLorme, Phillip Falcon and Esaias Vassar, Coeur d’Alene; and Jasmine Weems, Hispanic. Their works were presented at the tribal school and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Wash.

A hush of anticipation fell over the audience in the school gym when Samuel RedRunningbear Savage, Leilani Chan and Zilah Mendoza appeared with the students’ scripts in hand, and the young writers observed from their seats of honor as the performers revealed their heartfelt stories to the crowd. The actors delivered colorful soliloquies about relationships, jealousy, responsibility, the importance of family and the comfort of friends as the audience listened intently and laughed heartily at the jokes.

“It’s rare that anybody spends any time with these kids,” special education teacher Henry Willard, who has worked at the school for 13 years, said, referring to a lack of visitors to the rural school. “I wouldn’t run out of fingers and toes if I counted them all.”

Master artist Thomas Kellogg and producer Myra Donnelly, of the Los Angeles-based Mentor Artist Playwrights Project, spent a week on the reservation with award-winning director and musician Steve Alexander, drawing stories out of the children with the help of two mentors from the University of Idaho. In a series of fast-paced workshops, the students learned how to use metaphor and the dynamics of conflict to explore crisis, urgency and consequences.

This is the second time MAPP taught the Young Native Playwrights program at the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School and the results both times were stunning, according to Willard, who said last year’s program proved to be a groundbreaking experience that impressed on students how valid their ideas are.

“The playwrights were really impacted,” he said. “This opened up a whole new world to them. It gave them an idea about their capabilities that they never even fathomed. The rest of the year, behavior problems in those kids dropped to zero. I had kids that were bringing in their math homework after that. It was like the ripple effect of dropping a rock in the water. It wasn’t just writing. It was their lives.”

The creative process wasn’t always easy. At times students yawned, clammed up or complained about the avalanche of writing required, but caring adults at each youth’s side persisted in getting their thoughts on paper.

Three students in the mixed seventh- and eighth-grade class struggled through the process last time, which helped the younger ones accept the strange experience. One of them, Sophia George, resisted the intrusion of outsiders invading her school last year – to the point of repeatedly escaping through a side door to get away from them. But the mentors kept urging her back until she finished her play, “Sneaky Sly”; and this year she was engaged and responding to Kellogg’s questions before he finished asking them. George, who has never seen a live play, later used the techniques she learned to write a second script on her own, which examines romantic jealousy and deceit among friends.

Her example and leadership encouraged Kellogg. Far from being a flash-in-the-pan that sweeps through the reservation with a great idea only to disappear into obscurity, he understands the need for predictable programs that students can depend on to help them succeed.

This is an opportunity for regional funders and the local community to support a project of inestimable value, he said.

Last spring’s event was paid for by Los Angeles-based Native Voices at the Autry, but after agreeing to a two-year stint, the Autry unexpectedly pulled out and MAPP was left scrambling for funds. Kellogg was unable to raise the $50,000 necessary to implement a full residency and fair payment for the actors, which would have resulted in one-act plays performed before in half a dozen venues and trips to surrounding universities where students are introduced to continuing education opportunities, like last year. So MAPP donated its services to provide a pared-down program on a shoestring and paid the actors a small stipend, with the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School squeezing money out of its strained budget for basic expenses.

“I can’t put a dollar amount on what this Young Native Voices program does for our kids,” Jeanne Givens, who works at the school, said. “But to see their faces, to see them connect with the actors, to see them show respect to the mentors who come in and to see their plays performed in front of their families – there is no price tag you can put on that, because we’ve never done anything like this before. We are in a rural and remote area where there’s no such thing as the arts in school.”

The participation of professional theater artists of color sends a positive message to the students.

“Having our young students exposed to these terrific actors is a real plus,” Givens said. “These are people who live their lives intentionally, where things don’t just fall apart and they don’t live in chaos. They are strong role models for our youth.”

The actors, who are no strangers to poverty, racism and broken relations, relished the opportunity to provide evidence of the fulfillment that hard work and determination brings. After the show, a crowd of young students descended from the bleachers for their autographs.

Savage, better known as “Red,” is an actor, singer and dancer who is currently a choreographer with Entertainment Plus Productions. He will appear in “Beverly Kills” and recently co-starred in the feature film “Punks.” Red has worked with top names such as Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and Shirley MacLaine, and has numerous television and stage appearances to his credit.

Chan is an award-winning solo performer who is currently an Artist in Residence with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. She is founding artistic director of TeAda Productions, whose mission is to enrich the repertoire of works created by people of color.

Mendoza is an Obie-winning actress with numerous stage and television performances. Recent television appearances include “Crossing Jordan,” “The King of Queens” and “One on One.”