Into the light

Student-produced one-acts illuminate social issues

A scene from Light of Day starring (from left) Hearthstone School students Kelaiah Derder (who also wrote and directed) and Ife Sainte.

A scene from Light of Day starring (from left) Hearthstone School students Kelaiah Derder (who also wrote and directed) and Ife Sainte.

Photo courtesy of Hearthstone

Given the often dry nature of school productions of well-worn “classics,” it was refreshing to attend the intriguing Hearthstone on Tour, a set of three student-authored, -directed and -acted plays presented by Hearthstone School’s Playwriting, Acting, and Directing class at the 1078 Gallery last Friday (March 31).

In her program notes, teacher Deanna Alexich said her “goal as program director was to be present but invisible, too, allowing opportunity, but not striving to control outcome … which was not an easy task.” The positive results of encouraging free expression among the students at the Oroville charter school were apparent in the obvious enthusiasm, joy and thoughtfulness they brought to the creation and performance of the three plays.

This was the second of two public showings of the class’ one-acts (the first was earlier in the day at Hearthstone), and Alexich says that there has been community interest in additional performances and she hopes to be able to tour the production in the area (contact for info).

As for the plays, each took on a different aspect of what it’s like growing up in today’s world and the issues that young people face.

First up was Fourth Wall, a short Twilight Zone-esque piece written and directed by Knanyah Derder and Jazmine Ohlhausen. It tells the story of two friends who go for a walk and become, unknowingly at first, ensnared in an increasingly weird play involving characters who are aware of the emotionally uncomfortable but inescapable pitfalls of their own roles. There’s the young woman trapped within the boundaries of her own beauty and charm; a villain who can’t help being seen as evil despite his desire not to be; and a “hero” who manipulates those around him with narcissistic impunity. The friends’ realization that they can perceive and annihilate these roles as well as the wall between themselves and the audience manifested as they left their characters and exited through the welcoming crowd.

Next, Baby Gangstas, by Keaton Sahagun and Ethan Gentles, took a lighter-hearted look at socially imposed roles and boundaries as a group of preschoolers scheming the most efficient way to break into the daycare kitchen and steal the cookie jar off the top of the refrigerator. The adolescent actors were dressed in assorted whimsical onesies and seated on daycare-sized chairs playing Go Fish with cards proportioned for baby hands. As they plotted their caper in toddler-toned voices, the physical comedy and dialogue built to a satisfyingly kid-positive conclusion.

At the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum was Light of Day, a one-act in seven succinct scenes that explored a graduation day in the life of Marcus (Ife Sainte), a young black man whose older brother died in an unjustified shooting by police in “a small suburban farm town” four years earlier. Written and directed by Kelaiah Derder (Knanyah’s sister), this final play of the night was filled with deeply heartfelt sentiment and perceptive social commentary.

In the opening scene, Marcus’ concerned mother, Rose (played by Derder), lectures him on how to most safely deal with police encounters as he prepares to attend a graduation party. Subsequent scenes show Marcus in well-scripted and -acted conversations with friends and classmates, debating about how the concepts of prejudice, systemic racism, white privilege, discrimination and stereotyping relate to young people of color in contrast to their white counterparts.

Following the plays, the students extended the show with a forum mediated by former Chico State professor and current San Jose State sociology/kinesiology lecturer Dr. Vernon Andrews. It was a powerful forum that gave the writers and actors an opportunity to talk about the issues and their intentions behind the socially conscious works and their reactions to portraying the characters they’d invented.

Overall, with unpretentious and honest writing, unguarded emotional directness and the quirky humor of the youthful actors, the Hearthstone troupe presented a very successful, well-rounded night of theater.