Friday, December 22, 2006

Teen mothers and incarcerated boys create a play

Troubled lives of teen parents turned into art by new play
Kenning, Chris. Louisville Courier-Journal, April 13, 2006, pg. A1.

When Erica Hodak told her parents she was pregnant at age 16, her mother cried and her father got drunk.

Friends ostracized her, and the 15-year-old father at first "wouldn't do nothing" to help, she said, adding, "I was thinking I wouldn't finish high school."

Two years later, Hodak is one of dozens of local teen mothers, and some incarcerated boys, finishing an unusual four-year project that has turned their troubled lives into art and altered the way some students view their own pasts.

Aided by a federal grant and Stage One, a professional theater company for young audiences, Jefferson County students acted and wrote personal histories that inspired "Naomi's Stereophonic Diner," an original fictional play by New York playwright Jim Mirrione premiering today at the Kentucky Center.

The roughly hourlong play portrays attention-starved girls duped by sweet talk, and scared and confused boys running from their responsibilities and the shared struggle to keep young lives from stalling.

"It's made me understand my experience more," said Hodak, now 18, who drew on her own past to work as an assistant director on the play.

The idea began in 2002 as a partnership between Stage One, Jefferson County Public Schools and the U.S. Department of Education with the goal of teaching and creating theater by tapping into at-risk students' experiences.

Two local public schools were chosen:
The Audubon Youth Development Center, a juvenile justice facility that houses teen boys while providing schooling.

The boys' offenses range from sex crimes to theft and truancy. Many have been abused or neglected and have emotional disabilities, officials said.

The Westport Teenage Parent Program, designed to help pregnant teenage mothers graduate from high school by offering child care, medicine, social services and counseling. Some of the students have suffered physical or sexual abuse, officials said.

Mirrione, a longtime playwright at New York University who has written about youth issues such as suicide and drug abuse, received a $4,000 commission to write the play and met a number of times with the Louisville students.

Andrew Harris, Stage One's education director, taught drama classes while urging students to play out their own experiences. Some wrote dialogues and essays; others acted out short skits or told stories.

One boy told about living in a foster home with a snake-handling preacher and getting caught stealing a Ford. Another talked about his shame of committing sex abuse.

Girls acted out scenes of absent mothers, restraining orders and the life-altering shock of learning they were pregnant.

"They told me I was three weeks pregnant," one girl wrote in a dialogue.

"Well, whose is it?" the boyfriend says.

"It's yours, stupid. ... You're gonna take care of me, aren't you?"

"A little bit ," says the boyfriend, who eventually abandons her.

One girl wrote about her grades falling and her mother's growing disregard. "I tried to commit suicide," she wrote. Other pregnant girls wrote: "I hate men," and, "He loves his video games more than me."

Many of the students credited the fictional characters with allowing them to express their feelings and experiences safely. They gained confidence and learned to communicate better, organizers said.

"Some were still children, and some had been forced to grow up too quickly. Some were depressed, but all had varying degrees of hope for the future," Mirrione said in an interview. "All wished they could turn back the clock."

Mirrione read essays, watched dialogues and talked to students to write the play, based broadly on the Louisville students' histories. In it, three girls Starrz, Peaches and Diamond eat each day at a diner near their school, modeled after Jefferson County Public Schools' teen-pregnancy program.

Naomi, the owner of the diner, listens to their banter, worries and regrets as she narrates her story about a dropout father who refused to help. The characters talk trash, swear, cry, fight with boyfriends and come to terms with their futures. In the end, Naomi tells them, "all planes get delayed because of bad weather."

The play is intended for both teen and adult audiences.

"We didn't want it to be an after-school special," said Harris. "It's meant to be realistic."

That's thanks partly to students at the teen parent school. They read the scripts, offered changes and corrected slang, such as changing "word up" to "straight up." Hodak helped the professional actors with detail, including telling them to hold their backs when they walked, as she did when pregnant.

Some current students from the teen pregnancy school will see the play, including Taylor Hooper, 15, who has a 9-month-old child. She's seen plenty of her own drama, including a boyfriend who was kicked out of his house over her pregnancy before landing in jail.

Taylor said it's somehow validating to see a work that makes sense of her own toughest times. "Most of the girls can relate to it," she said.

Stage One's production of "Naomi's Stereophonic Diner" includes two evening performances at the Kentucky Center's Bomhard Theater at 7 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Matinee performances for school groups and others will be held at 10 a.m. today and tomorrow. All performances are free. No tickets are required.


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