At-risk high schoolers work with pros to put Chicano history on stage

Students at Pueblo de los Angeles High School rehearse the play
Students at Pueblo de los Angeles High School rehearse the play "I: Witness."
Priska Neely/ KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Students in continuation schools in Los Angeles are the very closest kids to dropping out of school entirely. The teens in the programs, that offer smaller class sizes and flexible schedules, are focused on passing the classes needed to graduate and arts programming usually falls by the wayside. 

"They’re doing the basics – trying to finish their math classes, history classes, etc.," said Theresa Chavez, artistic director of About Productions. "So arts are not necessarily a priority in these situations."

To remedy that lack of arts programming, About Productions has been providing theater programming in continuation schools in East L.A. for 16 years. This weekend, they'll debut a production written by and for these students.

Students from Pueblo de Los Angeles will perform the play, called I: Witness, alongside professional actors at Plaza de la Raza April 7 and 8.

The production is part of the group's Chicano Legacy Project, which aims to educate youth about theater and the history of the Mexican-American movements the 1960s and '70s in Los Angeles.

"We are dedicated to being in East L.A.," added Chavez (who, full disclosure, is married to KPCC's Oscar Garza). "These students are generally low-income and they're not going to get the arts outside of school either." 

Five years ago, the company started hosting 10-week residencies in continuation schools in the area. Students interviewed artists like poet Gloria Enedina Alvarez, muralist and visual artist Yreina Cervantez and filmmaker Jesús Treviño. They then wrote short plays informed by those conversations.

The resulting compilation, "I: Witness," weaves together significant moments in Chicano history, like the 1968 student walkouts and 1970s protests against the Vietnam War, with struggles in the Latino community today.

"There’s a historical element to it," said Chavez. "They’re becoming students of their own community history, at the same time that they’re learning collaboration skills, developing literacy skills and communication skills, as well." 

Students at Pueblo also worked on costume and sound design for the show. 

Kimberly, 17, is playing one of the leads in the play. She came to Pueblo after getting out of a rehab center. She says she's been sober for about eight months. She says being the theater class motivates her to come to school and the play has given her more pride in her heritage.

"People don’t really look up to Hispanics," she said. "They think, oh we don’t do nothing, we don’t go to school, we just got kids. We’re basically showing that we have bigger dreams for ourselves that we can achieve."