Black teen writers’ short plays on racial equity brought to life on YouTube

CHICAGO - Black middle- and high-school teens from six Chicago Public Schools who were trained in virtual playwriting courses created by Silk Road Cultural Center got a chance to see their monologues and short plays on racial equity professionally performed and broadcast on YouTube, thanks to a Healing Illinois grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS).

The students are part of Silk Road Cultural Center's Black Teen Lives Matter, a virtual project in four acts that feature the writings of Black teens in the organization's Empathic Playwriting Intensive Course (EPIC) program from 2017-2020. The EPIC courses, held virtually during the pandemic, helped students develop empathy and social understanding through playwriting.

So far, Silk Road Cultural Center has used its $12,000 Healing Illinois grant to produce two video compilations of students' monologues and skits, and to sponsor an EPIC playwriting residency at Ryan Banks Academy in the Woodlawn community between Nov. 17 and Dec. 8, 2020. The works from the residency will be incorporated into the project's final act this summer.

"I think that the Healing Illinois grant really resonated with what we are trying to accomplish with Black Teen Lives Matters," said Elizabeth Rosner, development associate at Silk Road Cultural Center. "We set out to respond to this period of racial awakening and to amplify the voices of our city's young people."

Student writers were from the following schools: Galileo Scholastic Academy of Math & Science on the Near West Side; John Hope College Prep in Englewood; Skinner West Elementary School in the West Loop; Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood; Ryan Banks Academy in Woodlawn; and Wescott Elementary School in Auburn Gresham.

Police violence and Chicago crime were some of the topics students wrote about in Act One, which features monologues. In one monologue called "The 2 That Changed My Life," an actor tells the story of a writer's brother being shot and killed by police with two bullets while trying to run from a gang who wanted to take his new gym shoes.

In another monologue called "My Life," a male actor expresses a teen writer's fear of living in Chicago because of its crime:

"I'm from the area where everyday people die. Sometimes I just think about it and ask God 'Why do all these innocent people gotta keep dying?'" He goes on to say: "This crime is unbelievable, leaves me unspeakable. Everyday I go out and wonder if they're beatable. I even get scared to sometimes go around the block because you never know who could pull up and get shot."

Family relationships and police violence were highlighted in short skits in Act Two. In one play called "Whatever It Takes," a character consoles his best friend and fellow athlete after learning that his friend has resorted to steroids to live up to his father's athletic stardom, all while struggling with physical abuse from his father. In another play, "Red, White, Blue Won't Always Protect You," a young Black lady engages in dialogue with a white police officer about why he killed her brother.

The Act Three video, which was not funded with a Healing lllinois grant, focuses on taking a stand against injustices, such as police brutality and racial and gender discrimination.

The Act Four video, which is currently under production, will highlight students' perspectives about the pandemic, racial awakening, virtual learning and other matters during the past year.

The screening for the final video compilation is scheduled for July 28 and July 31 via Zoom. For more information, please visit Silk Road Cultural Center's website.

Silk Road Cultural Center is a community-centered art making and arts service organization rooted in Pan-Asian, North African, and Muslim experiences. Through live theatre, digital media, and arts education, the organization challenges disinformation, cultivates new narratives, and promotes a culture of continuous learning.

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