By the time fuzz began to grow above Oscar Sierra's lip, he says, he already was a veteran gang member, an arranger of drug deals and an organizer of "ditch" parties for his classmates in his neighborhood in Watts.
He'd been shot in a drive-by shooting that sent a bullet into an arm.
"In my neighborhood, it wasn't a question of whether you were going to be involved in a gang," he said last week. "The only question was how deeply."
Then Sierra met character actor Phil Simms, who had the idea of starting a student performing arts group at Jordan High School where Sierra was a freshman. Simms first came to the school with a troupe in 1988 to perform "Of Mice and Men" and stayed around, dispensing bear hugs in the hallways and recruiting students to put on their own play. Sierra wondered whether Simms was some flaky do-gooder or for real.
"They were meeting in the library," Sierra, now 22, recalls. "First there were mainly just girls, but it just so happened the girls were cute, so it started drawing boys."
Nine years later, it's not cute girls who keep Sierra in Living Literature/Colors United, the program that developed from Simms' idea.
Ask Sierra what he wants to do with his life now and he hastily doffs his neat sport shirt and rolls up the right sleeve of his T-shirt. There on the same arm where he was shot as a young teenager is a tattooed symbol of his dream--the smiling and frowning masks of Comedy and Tragedy with the word "Yale" tattooed underneath.
It means he hopes to get a graduate degree in theater arts from Yale University after he obtains his undergraduate degree at Cal State Los Angeles.
"It's better than jail," is his quick retort.
Sierra says he owes his goals to Colors United, which now operates at two other Los Angeles high schools--Locke and Venice--and at Cal State Los Angeles.
Students meet after school for acting and martial arts classes and rehearsals twice weekly at the high schools nearest their homes, and Saturdays as a full group.
Almost any young person who doesn't have to be baby-sat is invited to participate.
Adult volunteers help them study classical American authors and put together song, dance and reading reviews that incorporate that author's work. They have performed, for instance, a Steinbeck show at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas and a Hemingway show at the Ernest Hemingway Festival in Key West, Fla.
They also participated in President Clinton's 1993 inaugural.
Last summer, 20 of the students traveled to Denmark, where they performed their signature musical "Watt Side Story"--a Los Angeles-ized version of "West Side Story"--and held performance workshops for Danish students.
Money for projects has come from corporate and individual donations and, more recently, grants.
Entertainment industry volunteers say the program has influenced the lives of hundreds of students like Sierra, who in many cases had never been out of their neighborhoods before becoming involved in Colors United.
It influenced Sierra so much that he has remained in it after graduating from Jordan and is now on staff as a coordinator and a yoga instructor.
Colors United is full of success stories like his, young people who open up like watered flowers when given attention and a chance to show their talent or just be heard, said Steve Greenstein, a comedian, actor and program volunteer recruited by Simms.
"I was doing my banking at the actors credit union and I was accosted by Phil who said, 'You gotta help kids. You gotta help kids,' " Greenstein recalls. "He brought me from Hollywood and Vine to Watts."
Greenstein has volunteered in the program off and on ever since, along with make-up artists, production people and others who make time to help students engage in what actor Ira Mc Alily called "drama therapy"--exercises that are designed to build such things as self-esteem and communication skills.
Last week, Mc Alily and Sierra sat in Jordan High School's auditorium as Greenstein worked with students like Shaterakeysha Brown, 11, who recited a short monologue she had written about a boy whose father had abandoned him.
Earlier, he helped two boys who had gotten into a fight work through the anger they felt toward each other.
Standing on the auditorium stage facing each other, each was told to use a succession of single words to describe the other. After much missed eye contact and defiant body language, Cassamerri Keith finally dropped his guard and got to the point:
"I want us to be friends again like we were last week," he told Cedric Hagler.
In the end, Cedric was not totally forgiving, but the tension had lifted considerably.
And by the end of the evening it was gone, unlike incidents in the program's early days when, Greenstein and Mc Alily laughingly recalled, some of the Hollywood people didn't understand that they sometimes were working with real gang rivals, whose hostility toward each other wasn't acting.
The credo of the group quickly became: All outside beefs remain outside.
Sierra said it was a huge relief to have someplace to go where he did not have to be on guard or tough, where he didn't have to be steeped in the troubles of his family.
"It was a place to forget about your alcoholic parents and things like that," he said. "Here we were equal."
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Today's focus is Living Literature/Colors United. Although most of the students in the performing arts program live near the schools where it operates, it is open to any student up to college age. For more information, call (310) 444-8357.