"Se llama mad dogging," said the boy, glaring at the audience, his hands shoved into the pockets of his oversized pants. His dark eyes and his voice both say, "I'm for real, so you better watch it."
One by one, the teen actors stride to the center of the makeshift stage at the Mar Vista Family Center in Culver City, in time to a hip-hop beat.
They're all "mad dogging," and their words penetrate like hammered nails.
"In our 187th moment in our history, sometimes you have to mad dog," said a girl wearing a button saying 'No on 187,' the voter-approved proposition that seeks to deny public services to illegal immigrants. "Some days we mad dog our teachers," declared the boy in the baggy shirt and pants.
Anger is at the heart of mad dogging, said a tall boy with a small gold hoop in his left ear. "But underneath the anger is hurt," he said.
Since Sept. 20 teen-agers who live in or near the Mar Vista Gardens housing project had been writing and producing the play "Mad Dogging" at the center, which since 1977 has provided child care, group therapy, tutoring and other services in the low-income, largely Latino neighborhood.
The play, funded by a grant from the Permanent Charities Committee of the Entertainment Industry and produced by Doug Kaback of the Playwright's Project, a nonprofit group, premiered at the family center March 10. An encore performance is scheduled for Friday, and others may follow.
Lucia Diaz, director of the family center, said community agencies and schools from as far away as Pasadena have asked that the "Mad Dogging" troupe perform for their groups. The universal appeal, she says, appears to stem from the play's honesty in exploring how youths find and maintain self-respect.
"Mad Dogging" consists of several sketches. One looks at a young man's struggle to distance himself from a gang. In another, an attractive girl wonders why she's always given the ultimatum: have sex with a boy to keep his friendship. A third sketch deals with a young couple's difficult decision to have a baby and get married.
"No matter where we come from, these are problems all youth face," Diaz said.
The play takes its name from a look and attitude adopted by Latino youths. Nora Frausto, 17, said, "(It) is like talking without words. Your eyes say it all. Your eyes tell people, 'You made me angry.' "
Through the play, said Frausto, the anti-187 activist, frustrations found an outlet--the frustration of being a teen-ager in 1995. "We're dealing with Prop. 187, drugs, sex, pregnancy, alcohol and gangs," she said.
Most of the youths who wrote and performed in the play have been taking part in the Mar Vista Family Center's programs since they were toddlers.
Putting on a play, said Doug Kaback of the Playwrights Project, helps youths develop the discipline needed for long-term projects.
"When we started writing the dialogue, most of them saw it wasn't so tough," said Kaback, Los Angeles coordinator for the Playwrights Project, which gives youths access to professional writers and actors. "They could write about things they never told anyone else about."
The technical work, such as creating props and sound effects and memorizing lines, came together slowly. But ultimately, Kaback said, the teen-agers realized they had to "take responsibility of all facets to bring this play together."
"This is my first time doing something like this," said Giovanni Rodriguez, 16, a Venice High School student who has been coming to the center since he was 5.
Giovanni, who plays a youngster being pressured to join a gang, said writing and acting "makes me feel more confident in myself." He added: "And I don't do stuff like this. I'm a quiet guy."
In "Mad Dogging," Noe Rodriguez plays a gang member who encourages an aspiring gangster to shoot a boy as part of an initiation process. The scene made him uncomfortable, he said, because one of his brothers was in a gang and he also lost a friend to gang violence.
But he said he was glad to help deliver the play's underlying message. "The main story in the play is that being in a gang is not good," Noe said.
Based on the audience response, the actors succeeded in making their point.
"I'd love to have these kids do their play at our school," said Maria Montano, a bilingual education coordinator at Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles. "They would be great role models for the students at our school having the same problems."
Parents also learned from the play. Said Diaz: "Many said they realized they have to think twice, and talk to their children, and try to be more sensitive."
"Mad Dogging" will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday at the Mar Vista Family Center, 5070 S. Slauson Avenue, Culver City. (310) 390-9607.