In the back of the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood this past Saturday, ten high-school students run through an extensive series of icebreakers — reciting everyone’s name in order, untying a human knot, touching a knee to somebody else’s foot.
Physical contact is important for team-building, Katie Christie explains to them between exercises. If you want to break through barriers of awkwardness and unfamiliarity, “you’re getting a little closer to connecting to that person” by holding her hand or rubbing his elbow.
This isn't your average drama class. The students, ArtsWorks interns through Miami's Arts for Learning nonprofit, are all people of color, gathering here from high schools across Miami-Dade. Led by Christie, the founder and director of socially conscious arts group Voices United, the young artists are preparing to discuss some of their most unsettling experiences with racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Their goal is to write a series of one-minute plays, to be performed for the public this Saturday, that explore America’s societal problems.
It’s heavy subject matter, but if the warmups are any indication, the students have plenty of motivation to tackle it.
As they share observations and experiences, it’s clear the students understand the subject matter intimately. They discuss the South African school that recently dropped a policy against Afros and cornrows, and their own discussions with parents who disapprove of natural hair. They describe Marc Jacobs models with fake dreadlocks and wealthy kids at school who “try to act hood” even though “they wouldn’t even step foot in the hood”; listening to a mostly white class deciding which racial slurs and comments are offensive and which are just jokes or compliments; getting jeered at by men on the street—these teens have a lot to unload.
“It stinks that you need, sometimes, a reality check, because we live in a society where... we go by every day and we don’t think, sit down, and... analyze things as they go,” says Vianny Guillen, a junior at BridgePrep Academy of Arts & Minds in Coconut Grove.
The acting project is an offshoot of the Every 28 Hours Plays, a national initiative started by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Every 28 Hours refers to one estimate of the rate at which black Americans are killed by police officers, security guards, and vigilantes — a stream of violence to which half the ArtWorks interns say they’ve lost someone they knew. Voices United is planning a professional performance in late October.
The full Every 28 Hours performance “is the adult experience,” Christie says. “I was interested in figuring out what the youth perspective is for that.”
Interns say they hope their own performance will foster conversations they aren’t hearing elsewhere.
“I feel like it would raise an awareness,” Guillen says, referring specifically to the problem of street harassment. “A lot of women don’t talk about it... like, girls won’t go to their dad and be like, ‘Hey, Dad, today when I was walking to school, this guy... told me this and that.’ You know? So I feel like it would open people more to... talk about it.”
Susan Aghedo, a senior at Miami Palmetto High in Pinecrest, wants to talk about identity — in her case, feeling judged for her Nigerian origin and the way she speaks.
“People kind of see black people as a monolith,” she says. “Like, people can understand, ‘Oh, you’re French; you’re British.’ But it’s like for me, a lot of times it’s like a little identity crisis, like, ‘Oh, I’m not African-American, but I’m not Nigerian enough'.... And at the same time, oh, I speak too proper, so here I’m white, but over there — I’m still white, because I speak like an American.... And then to white people, they’re like, ‘You don’t look white,’ so you’re not white.
“We talk a lot about racism from other races, but... we don’t really talk about... [issues] within our community.”
In the group of ArtWorks interns, though, she has people with whom she can commiserate — and who can inspire her too.
Interns “have that little convergence of the artist and the person who’s into social justice, and the person who’s into... making a statement and doing something with their lives,” she says. Christie, who founded Voices United (originally called Peace Child Miami) as a high-school senior in 1989, says young people offer insights into social issues that are often ahead of the curve.
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“They create work and bring up topics that no one is talking about, and then a few years later, this is what everybody is trying to pay attention to,” she says.
For the students, she says, it’s a chance to connect more with their own thoughts as well as with one another.
“When they move on from that safe space, they know more about themselves, they feel better about themselves, and they know that they have the power to make their lives better — to make this world better.”
The ArtWorks interns’ performance of original one-minute plays and selected plays from Every 28 Hours will take place Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse (404 NW 26th St., Miami). After the plays, they’ll host a discussion with the audience. Admission is free; donations are encouraged.