East Palo Alto Storytelling, Part 2

Jake Arky is the co-founder of So Say We All. At the time that this article was published, he is completing a playwriting residency with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley. The Young Playwrights Project involves writing new, original works for the stage and teaching performance/writing classes in local high schools.

Class 2:

Usually I refrain from writing mathematics and numbers into my pages, but there is no other way to calculate today’s class at EPA. If you imagined today’s session as a circle, bisected the angel, and the used a protractor to measure the change, you’d find that we ended up with a 180.

In other words, a complete turn around. Part of it was due to the fact that the most disruptive student from the previous class was transferred into a different elective, but more so, it had to do with exposure in the students’ work. Actually honoring each other as classmates, neighbors, friends, and to a certain degree, colleagues benefitted them more than they realized. I don’t agree with Joan Didion that writers are always selling someone out. Occasionally, yes. Today, nobody was sold out. If anything, they were exalted.

The EPA students were given two prompts, both consisting of a quote and a picture:

Prompt #1

And, of course, millions of us cross the border to work in US homes and gardens and factories and carpentry shops and restaurants, and if you go to a restaurant pretty much anywhere in the United States, the chances are that the dishes will be washed by a Mexican. – Alma Guillermoprieto, Journalist

Prompt #2

Policemen so cherish their status as keepers of the peace and protectors of the public that they have occasionally been known to beat to death those citizens or groups who question that status. – David Mamet, American Playwright

For prompt #2, a girl — the one from the first class who threatened another female student simply for looking at her “the wrong way” — volunteered to read her story. This was something we weren’t sure any one was going to do, let alone this early in the session. She opted to continue working on her story over the weekend, but the summary of her story involved the arrest of her uncle at a Home Depot; of the cops who came over to her aunt’s house and ate her food, made jokes, and investigated her home. This action eventually led to the family’s eviction, to this student having to drop out of a school for an extended period of time. For days on end she and her family went without food or hot water, weeks in the same clothes.

The way the story was prefaced by the student was “don’t laugh at me” but it ended with “no one should have to go through this in their life” and “because I went through it I am stronger…”  Nobody in the class challenged the story or the presentation. She was crying by the end of the story and you’d be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in almost all of the class. In the feedback, other kids said that they connected with the story’s details about the arrests of family members, of losing everything because one person held the entire world up for their families.

What was perhaps the most amazing part of the whole class is that the writer of this story never gave away the details about why her uncle was arrested. Intentionally or not she left it up to the audience to fill in the gaps and it worked like a charm.

Witness: a modern-day storyteller is born.

Here are some anonymous excepts from some of the work from this session at East Palo Alto:

“A beaner is jumping the border so that he can come work in the United States! Or he might want to see over the border? He looks like a retarded-ass mathafucker!! If he gets to jump to the other side of the border, La Migra will catch him and bite his ass so badly that he might not get to be in this world anymore! After La Migra kick his beaner ass and killed him, a Migra dude got scared and didn’t want to go to jail for biting up a dirty old brown skin beaner. So then Migra dude took him to the river and through his bitch-ass in the water!!!” – Response to Prompt #1

“It was hot, I was tired and hungry. I been walking for days, people have told me I’m almost there…there where? To the U.S., but as I was walking I was stopped by this big fence. I knew now I was a few steps away from what I been dreamin’ of. So I climbed and slipped and climbed again. I fell to the other side. It wasn’t as my family said it was: nice, green, fresh eats…maybe it wasn’t like they said or I just haven’t seen it.” – Response to Prompt #1

“Today, reporting live from East Palo Alto, a drunken man ran over a 13-year-old boy. The man was 48-years-old and was given 6 years of prison for two different penalties. The man had just left the bar from Palo Alto…people from all over East Palo Alto are crying over the boy. The parents are so very regretful for allowing the boy to go to his friend’s house. The parents are also mad because they believe the man was not punished enough. People out there who are drinking and driving must remember, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. This is Lisa reporting live from East Palo Alto and I say ‘good-night Bay Area!'” – Response to Prompt #2