Acting on Racism : Student Essays Have Been Turned Into a Play About Cultural Conflicts

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Soul-searching became an academic endeavor at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School last year and turned into an artistic endeavor this year as students went on a quest to determine the meaning of racism.

Their reflections are the pillars that shape a student-created multimedia play scheduled to open tonight. "Human" is the result of more than 550 essays about being judged on the basis of race, culture and religion. The topic was assigned by English teachers nearly a year ago and has been transformed into a two-hour play intermingled with video, dance and music.

The students involved in "Human" are addressing racial issues on their campus, which sits on a hill above the Pacific Ocean, isolated from the urban ills of Los Angeles. Over the last five years the racial landscape of the student body has changed from predominantly white to more than one-third Asian American.

The Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District reports that its student population is now about 58% white, 36% Asian American, 4% Latino and 2% black, compared with five years ago when the student body was almost completely white. Nearly 40 languages are spoken in the district.

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In response to the changing demographics, the high school set up a multicultural board last year that suggested school activities to make students aware of racial issues before they could become a problem. Thus was born the idea for essays that the high school students wrote about their own racial interactions and feelings.

The play, based on the students' true-life essays, provides anecdotal evidence of mild racial tension at the high school. During a lunch scene, students congregate with "their own kind." Another scene depicts a black student asking her white history teacher about why the class only studies white people in history. Rumor of the conversation eventually spreads on campus and by the time it gets back to the student involved, the story has been turned on its ear. Rumor has it that the teacher has called the student the N-word.

Discussion of the N-word is only a small example of how the lines of communication have been opened, according to Jim Bell, the drama teacher directing the play. Bell said the students were uncomfortable using the actual word and that in itself induced a number of conversations about race.

"There was a lot of conflict over the use of that word," Bell said. "We chose to eliminate it from the play because everyone was so uncomfortable with it."

There are several skits in the play that feature conflicts with Asian students, who have been by far the fastest-growing ethnic group on campus. Paul Suhr plays the role of Takashi, a new student from Japan whom the kids pick on because he doesn't understand the language. The kids laugh at him when he brings sweat-drenched socks to a track meet because the coach said to bring sweat socks; at a party, his classmates treat him like a puppet by telling him to walk around the party saying, "I'm too sexy for this party." Takashi doesn't understand what he is saying.

Alissa Gilbert plays Amariah, the character who argues with the history teacher. Gilbert, 17, wrote a monologue in the play about the difficulty she experienced when she moved to the area from Ladera Heights in fifth grade.

At the time, Gilbert was one of the only black students in school. She said she was called names occasionally and often felt different. Racial problems she encountered in her earlier years dissipated as the school grew more diverse, she said.

Gilbert has no experience in the theater but auditioned for "Human" because she wanted to open up dialogue about race while sharing her experiences.

"I really thought the play had a strong message," Gilbert said. "I don't expect the play to change people's views, but I hope it brings some discussion about race."

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Similarly Claire Rajan, who is of Indian descent, wanted to bridge the gap between the races on campus. Rajan, 15, said that although there are no overt signs of racism on the campus, students hang out in cliques and there is not enough mixing of the races.

"There's still a lot of segregation on this campus," Rajan said. "People stay with their own kind. They need to break out of that."

The process of putting the play together has brought students closer together. Nearly one-third of the school's 3,000 students have participated in the production.

"The process is more important than the product," said Mary Jo Mock, a member of the Multicultural Advisory Board. "We've got the issue of race out in the open now."

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