"Should I express myself? Should I be myself or should I find out what they want and try to be somebody else?"
Nearly 50 teenage voices resonate beautifully through Suite 202 in the old Manhattan Laundry building in D.C. on Feb 20, confronting a question teenagers across America ask themselves everyday.
"Don't, woulda-coulda, hit that thing!" Artistic Director Sandy Halloway says, urging the cast to really feel what they are singing. "Tell the audience why you hold back so much [in your everyday lives]; 'this is why I lock myself down and don't expose myself.'"
Here at City at Peace, a youth development program that utilizes the performing arts to facilitate personal and social change, fifteen Blair students join teens from other D.C. area high schools to rehearse for the Mar 27 performance entitled Show Face that will culminate the year long program.
Scenes and musical numbers in the show reflect the experiences that have shaped the these teens' identities through raw portrayals of issues affecting their lives, such as racism, sexual identity, depression, peer rejection, drug use, self-mutilation, abandonment and love.
In the first months of the program, Halloway facilitates team-building and self-awareness exercises to help the cast break down defense mechanisms and overcome insecurities. Participants also learn a model that, according to participants, actually works to resolve conflict and prevent violence.
As someone who invests his time in several organizations working for social justice, senior Eryn Trimmer feels that City at Peace has helped him develop stronger interpersonal skills. "It has empowered me and made me want to make a difference," he says.
The activities during the first half of the program help spark discussions about issues that pervade the streets, schools, and homes in local communities. According to associate Artistic Director, Marcus Harper, cross-cultural bonds are formed as the teens discover they share experiences with someone who bears no physical resemblance to them. A middle-class suburban child with workaholic parents might, for example, feel the same abandonment as an impoverished urban child whose single mom is never home.
One aspect of the program that aids in making these connections is the set rules called "first agreements" that include respect, confidentiality, "I statements" and amnesty. These agreements keep the group focused and honest, challenging the cast to open up and expose themselves.
Senior and third year City at Peace cast member Jessica Valoris explains that "I statements" forbids the teens from using the second person to help them take responsibility for their comments and avoid making broad-sweeping assumptions.
Gradually, the teens become more open and honest, gaining trust and a sense of security with their peers. "We get kids to see that there's a different way of being. We can create environments and relationships that are safer," says Harper.
Senior Amy Scheer says that the teens forgive the peeling paint and torn carpet, embracing City at Peace as a place where they can talk and be themselves. "I feel more at home here sometimes than I do at my own house," she says.
The fact that some cast members consider each other a second family and are more open at City at Peace than with their other friends reveals the depth of their relationships. "I don't think its possible to have that kind of relationship without coming through anger, without crying together, crying for each other," says Halloway.
Developing strong bonds with a diverse group of people has sparked the desire within many participants to develop a more open-minded attitude towards people and situations they encounter, instead of writing them off at face-value. "I really grew. I accept people easier for who they are," says junior Maryam Benganga.
This is also true for Scheer, who has found that her experience with City at Peace has not only taught her to be more accepting of others but also of herself. "It's not just that I have a greater understanding of all the injustices in the world; I've also learned so much about myself, my strengths and weaknesses and interactions with other people," she says.
Performing arts skills are by no means prerequisites to the program; some participants even admit they never believed they could sing to save their lives. Gaining the confidence to expose themselves and really commit to acting or choreography for the show almost parallels the leap of trust the cast takes when they first open up to each other.
Halloway entreats the group to find the power in their voice. "I would hate for you to come off that stage not feeling like you changed somebody's life," she says.
This is not an unrealistic expectation. After every performance audience members introduce themselves to Halloway and share the impact that it had on them. On one occasion, she was confronted by a woman who admitted that she hadn't talked to her daughter in twenty years but planned to go home that night and call her.
Halloway describes the performance as a "holistic" way to empower the audience. Often, this means helping viewers understand they are not alone and giving them permission to step up and act. "We use the performing arts to portray the issues in a way that is very real. We want to offer people real solutions to the problems that are facing us," says Halloway.
Valoris, responsible for recruiting several of her friends for the program, has found that the show acts as a catalyst for conversation. "It helps me talk to my mom about issues that I'm not that comfortable talking about on a regular basis."
Beyond the stage
After several hours of rehearsing choreography and musical numbers, teens sit in a circle listening to Halloway voice her concern that fear is interfering with the process. "Are you all afraid of each other, to be full out? Are you taking risks," she asks, her voice full of emotion. "If we don't come together, we aren't coming."
She urges the cast not to be afraid of success. "If you guys don't get that you can make a difference, nothing's going to change," Halloway says, wiping a tear from her face and reminding them that so much of what they're learning is not really about the show, "it's much bigger than that."
One characteristic that distinguishes City at Peace from other programs for social change is the value it places on individual transformation. "You're never going to affect change until you realize it's not about changing circumstances, it's about changing people," says Harper.
Working with teenagers to develop creative non-violent solutions to real world conflicts gives Halloway hope for future generations. "I know a lot of people worry about the future, but I see the future first hand," she says. "I don't feel scared; I feel assured."
City at Peace will premier its 2003 production, Show Face on Mar 27 at 7:30 pm at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for youth. For more information visit City at Peace .
Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »