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Urban Theater Puts Teens Center Stage

Friday, May 25, 2007

In a small theater group in Manhattan, young women find an open, free space to give voice to their ideas and expressions even as they are marginalized by the outside world. The result is concrete skills-building and compelling art.

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In a small theater group in Manhattan, young women find an open, free space to give voice to their ideas and expressions even as they are marginalized by the outside world. The result is concrete skills-building and compelling art.
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Unique Covington, bottom left, and friends at ViBe

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Chandra Thomas is having a hard time sitting down. She pops off her stool like a jack-in-the-box and lands on the floor next to the two teens she mentors at ViBe Theater Experience, a nonprofit community arts group for young women in New York City.

Thomas is leading a small group of female teens--most from low-income, minority backgrounds--through the writing, staging, rehearsal and performance of an original play with an all-female cast, "Elevator Muzik: What Goes Up Must Come Down."

Thomas' eyes grow wide and she holds out her hands and questions the teens as though it were the most important question of their lives: "So what are you two really trying to say to the audience here? What do they need to know?"

Erin Johnson, 18, barefoot and dressed in a polka dot T-shirt, purses her lips before answering. "That the way teenage girls think is deeper than it seems. Like we might be worrying about a pimple, but it's not vanity. We're really asking, am I a beautiful person?"

This is a typical moment at ViBe, a five-year-old group that has produced 15 full-length plays for over 4,000 audience members and worked with over 100 urban teens between the ages of 13 and 19.

At a time when young women are often the silent subject of a cacophonous public debate--the scandal over radio host Don Imus, sex education in public schools, accusations of misogyny directed toward hip-hop culture--ViBe Theater Experience provides them the chance to speak for themselves. Founders Dana Edell and Chandra Thomas encourage participants to write their own material, shape their own stories and perform in a style called a "devised" or "collage" play that interweaves their experiences in a thematic way.


Placing Trust in Young Women

In some ways ViBe is rooted in the experimental 1970s-era feminist theater movement that drew performance material from real-life events. In other ways, it joins the current social-justice trend of using theater in an attempt to transform society and rectify oppression. Whatever its ideological wellspring, ViBe founders say their program is successful because of the trust they place in the young women they mentor, who walk away from the program with a deeper sense of self and a developed capacity to communicate the self to the world.

"Our entire foundation and mission is to provide them with the space to say what they need to say. Not what we need to say, but what they need to say. We have no directing agenda. We have no social service agenda," Edell says.

ViBe began as a summer project of Edell and Thomas in 2002 when they were graduate students at Columbia University. They were both disenchanted with the lack of involvement that students and faculty tended to have with the larger, neighboring Harlem community and saw theater as a way to bridge the gap.

From a group of just eight high school-aged girls that summer, ViBe grew into a multifaceted theater and arts education curriculum that includes a teaching staff of four and an annual budget of $91,000. ViBe uses donated office space as its administrative hub and donated rehearsal and performance space in various locations throughout New York, most often at Here Arts Center, where "Elevator Musik" will be performed May 28 and 29.

ViBe runs a "SongMakers" program that offers female teens from New York's poorest schools the opportunity to write and perform original songs. Three CDs of original music have been produced from the program. ViBe also collaborates with New York-based nonprofit Girls Write Now to produce "Girls Life Adventure," in which participants engage a contemporary cultural issue through creative writing.


'Girls in Charge'

Teens freely express themselves with ViBe Theater Experience.

A new series called "Girls in Charge" encourages young female participants to create and teach their own arts curriculum. The first group to take on the challenge designed a spoken word poetry workshop for their peers that culminated in the publication of a book of poems.

"Before ViBe I was hesitant, really, really shy," says Unique Covington, 17, who participated in "Girls in Charge." "I wrote in my spare time and sung in church, but that's as far as it went. As cliche as it sounds, I've blossomed. I can say anything, do anything."

Covington's solo show in April explored conspicuous consumption, a topic that came to her as she was riding the subway. She immediately wrote a parody of the Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the creators of Gucci and Armani."

The show ended with the character's transformation; after reflecting on the emptiness of material goods she proudly declared, "I pledge allegiance to myself."

Covington will attend the University of Hartford in Connecticut next fall and plans to study journalism and theater. She credits ViBe with getting her in. "My college resume was full of ViBe!"

The ViBe experience provides teens public speaking and writing skills that contribute to their success at school. The city-wide public high school graduation rate is 38.9 percent; the ViBe graduation rate is 100 percent.

Edell says that ViBe was instrumental in getting two students full-ride scholarships to top-tier schools Brandeis and Colby, but she quickly adds, "Every girl upstairs (in the rehearsal space) is a success story."


Coming Out on Stage

One of those is the story of a young woman's gradual coming out through theater. In her first ViBe experience, she created and portrayed a male character who had a crush on a girl. In her next performance, she wrote and played a girl who was questioning whether she might be in love with her female roommate. And finally, in her third ViBe experience, she wrote unabashed lesbian erotica.

"She could try on what it felt like to desire a girl, rehearse it and explore the audience reaction," Edell says. "Eventually she could own her identity in real life."

As the light fades on the urban landscape just beyond the full-length windows in the donated practice space, Johnson and Desiree Rushing, both 16, face a compelling dilemma. Part of the message their original play explores is that young women must come to terms with their own imperfections, and they are grappling with how to dramatize the word "scars."

Thomas inches backwards toward her stool as the two teens struggle to come up with something. Silence weighs heavy. They shrug and fidget amid scripts strewn about and friends looking on. The effort to restrain is almost visible on Thomas' face.

"I know," says Rushing. She puts her hand over her heart and curves her back, as if taking exhaling sharply.

"Like a heart scar!" Thomas shouts. "I love it! Now let's do it from there."

The two teens face one another and everyone shouts "V-I-B-E," then claps, and the scene begins again.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body." She is also an adjunct professor of gender studies at Hunter College. You can read more about Courtney's work at http://www.courtneyemartin.com.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

ViBe Theater Experience:
http://ViBetheater.org/about.html

Girls Write Now:
http://www.girlswritenow.org/gwn/

"Girls Make Noise at Rock 'n' Roll Summer Camps":
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2165/

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