'Sez She' delivers straight talk to students in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

In the darkened Ivy Substation theater in Culver City on a recent Monday morning, a trio of L.A.'s edgier performance artists took the stage in front of 90 high school students and proceeded to challenge them with frank works about sexual, political and cultural identity.

Denise Uyehara slowly drew on her skin with a blue pen while recalling marks on a Jewish neighbor's arm, always swiftly concealed, that she'd seen as a child.

Ann Stocking took no prisoners with fierce, sensual pieces that pulverized stereotypes about physical disability.

Kate Rigg made a phone sex call -- but her provocative words were about the exploitation of the Third World's economic and human resources.

The show is "Sez She" and -- defying common expectations for what constitutes theater for young audiences, fairy tales and preachy pabulum -- it has been crafted by Center Theatre Group's P.L.A.Y. (Performing for Los Angeles Youth) company as an educational touring production.

"There isn't any such thing in the art world as a 'youth painting,' " said Corey Madden, the company's producing director. "So, why should we say 'youth theater' -- the way 'female' used to be used in front of 'director' or 'black' in front of 'playwright' -- to mean second-class?"

Complete with classroom study guide and before-and-after discussions, "Sez She" is playing primarily to high school juniors and seniors through next Friday, though college students also have been known to slip in when a performance is on campus.

"It's a very political work," says Madden, who also directed the show, "and it's very much about how the solo performer is a great American institution in a way ... giving us a clear look at some of the contradictions in our society."

In the show, the three performers' solo works are interwoven with new material and music that they perform together. Satiric writer-performer Rigg takes parts of "Chink-O-Rama," "china latina" and "Birth of a nAsian," using comedy with a poetry-slam, hip-hop edge to examine how non-Caucasian women are perceived through the prism of American society and politics.

Veteran performance artist Uyehara presents ritualistic, deeply intimate explorations of personal and political issues as installation art in excerpts from "Big Head" and "Maps of the City & Body." She integrates body-centric visuals into the show, using ink, charcoal, paper and video projections.

Relative newcomer Stocking, a theater artist with a physical disability, deals explicitly with the body in her work, "Live Nude Girl," dispelling stereotypes about disability and sexuality. Her fearless autobiographical segments in the show are about her experiences with doctors, classmates, airport security personnel and others.

P.L.A.Y. is among a handful of Los Angeles-based companies that are crafting older-skewing theater for young adults. While still serving elementary and middle school students with age-appropriate productions each spring, P.L.A.Y. now focuses on high school-age audiences in the fall.

In previous years, Lynn Manning presented his gritty autobiographical drama, "Weights," and hip-hop theater artists Danny Hoch, Jonzi D and Will Power performed in "Blazin'."

For theater to be vital to teenagers, Madden said, "they need to see work that is at least as sophisticated as the movies they see."

Although "Sez She" isn't as graphic as the music or films that young people are exposed to, what would be tame on the screen is intensely charged in the theater. Only a few feet separate the audience from the actors. That intimacy makes comfortable emotional remove difficult to achieve, as Monday's attendees discovered.

Their reactions ranged from appreciative laughter, embarrassed giggles and rapt silence to call-and-response approval; applause at the end was wildly enthusiastic and the comments afterward were thoughtful.

Airica C. Taylor, 16, a senior at Youth Opportunities Unlimited Alternative High School, was impressed with the political issues the artists expressed. Rigg's pieces about societal misperceptions of racial and ethnic identity resonated the most.

"It's about how people just assume what you are," Taylor said. "I could relate, because when people see me, they just see me as black, they don't see me as anything else."

"They addressed issues that people don't usually talk about and are afraid to talk about," said Ariel Steinberg, 17, a senior at Hamilton High School. "I just loved how honest and open everyone was."

Corey Smith, 16, and Azeem Khanmalek, 15, both juniors at Hamilton, were also surprised that a show for young audiences could be so adult.

"The concept and the issues explored, you wouldn't really expect to be performed in front of a high school audience," Khanmalek said.

"I loved the material, but it was kind of a shock that it went that deep. It's kind of like a wake-up call, to get teenagers aware of what's going on, all the problems that we have, the contradictions and hypocrisies."

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