East Palo Alto Storytelling, Part 5

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 5:

Flying solo today was tricky.

Before class, I went to the nearest Safeway and purchased two 6-packs of Hershey’s candy bars to use as motivation for the East Palo Alto students to complete their assignments for today. My boss and I make a good team where she can do the more physical, theatre-ish activities and I can conduct the writing. Take one of us out of the equation and you are left with a writer who’s forgot his humble theatre camp days where he knew all the rules of zip-zap-zop.

Not too concerned, I moved on to what the day would mainly consist of: writing a story about socio-economic status. We had printed out three different pictures, each picture representing lower/middle/upper class. I asked the EPA students which one stuck out the most and the lower class one captured most people’s attention:

Prompt#5 -- Bubbles from "The Wire"

Having learned in the past that if you teach others about what you’ve learned and what you love to learn from, then, in theory, you can teach others the same thing. I love the show “The Wire”, particularly the character of Bubbles. I love spoken word, hip-hop, and storytelling in all capacities. If I gave the EPA class the chance to write about the picture, played some spoken word, some hip-hop, and some storytelling, just maybe they could put it all together into a beautiful mess.

Like most classes, some did it and some didn’t do it. People looked at the picture and either started writing immediately or told me lackadaisically that their “hand hurt.” Whatever parts of the music or story they heard being played and paid attention to were quickly lost when I began to answer the question of “what’s he talkin’ ’bout? He sounds retarded” or “what’s she sayin’–I ain’t black!”

The ones who did complete the assignment and who always do the assignments are getting better and better with each story that they produce. One added dialogue that was pitch perfect while another one utilized the concept of a set-up and pay-off, something I haven’t even ventured to try and touch upon in the instructional portion of the class.

The other group didn’t do the assignment (and so, far, never do), even for the candy bar that hung in the balance. They threw mechanical pencils at each other, mouthed off, and took any chance they could to try and inflict some sort of pain — emotion, physical, etc. — on to their fellow students. Even past participants in writing exercises were seduced to the un-focused side from time to time.

But one thing that did stick with them, the majority of the class, anyways, was where their works was going to end up. When I told them that their projects about EPA was going to be produced in EPA, they took note of it. I told them from here on out they have to write stuff that matters to them, stuff that they care about. From here on out, it’s got their name on it; that their work is going to be produced for at least a 100 people to see.

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

“A young business man who looked fancy dropped in what seemed to be a dollar. ‘Thank you,’ said Luis. Looking at a young woman passing by the man said, ‘Excuse me, can you please tell me the time.’ ‘Yes it’s 12:15,’ the lady replied. The business man realized that he was late to his lunch. Luis got his hat and went to the nearest McDonald’s, buying one mini-meal. The total came to $3.25. He took the rolled up dollar that the business man gave him — he was flabbergasted to see that it wasn’t a dollar bill, but a $100 dollar bill.” — Response to Prompt #5

“There’s some guys that I know that are going toward them steps [of becoming homeless] and if they continue doing drugs and going through the bad steps, they’re going to end up like that or even worse. But I don’t wish that for any one.” — Response to Prompt #5

“…my brother has a friend that doesn’t have a home or a family because he wants to stay in EPA and his family moved to Hayward, but he chose to stay here without a family or home just to be in the streets and do drugs so he chose to be homeless. So, now he don’t got no place to stay and he showers in an abandoned house and he sleeps there because he don’t got no where to go. So my brother told him he could stay in our backyard and sleep in a couch we got and my mom gave him a blanket and my brother gave him clothes and we let him shower at our house because we feel sorry for him.” — Response to Prompt #5

“I see my peers in this class and they motivate me to be successful because they seem like they don’t care about their futures and probably they might end up like this homeless person. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to say they are, but they’re getting on the wrong road and could end up on a bad road in life.” — Response to Prompt #5