High school student's play explores homelessness, single motherhood
Lower Manhattan The Pearl Theatre sits on the far west side of 42nd Street, an Off-Broadway stage that typically features classic plays with award-winning professional actors on stage. But during a recent two-night engagement, young actors from 10 of New York City's public high schools took the stage, performing one-act plays written by some of the city's newest published playwrights: fellow high school students. One of the playwrights is Raina Schoen Thomas, a sophomore at Lower Manhattan Arts Academy on Grand Street who wrote and developed her 10-minute play through LeAp OnStage, a year-long theater program by Learning through an Expanded Arts Program, which places teaching artists in some of the city's most underserved schools. An annual program, LeAp OnStage works with 10 schools, and around 500 students, each year. "A lot of these kids feel no one listens to them about what they care about," said Alice Krieger, director of LeAp OnStage. "This is an opportunity to be heard, and from that, when people are hearing them it inspires them and gives them passion." Schoen Thomas' play, "Friendship in Dust," illuminates the unlikely bond between a teenage boy named Isaac and a homeless woman he meets on his way to school, who helps him cope with bullies and an overprotective single mother who's moved him to five new schools in two years. "I wanted to do something that touched on the issue of homelessness, like from a teenage perspective," said Schoen Thomas, a soft-spoken, freckled 16-year-old. "When you see a homeless person you avert your eyes, you don't look. And I hate that. It's like, right there, there's a real person." Throughout the academic year, each student in the citywide program works with LeAp's educators to write their own 10-minute plays, and the strongest script from each school is selected for on-stage production at the Pearl Theatre. The 10 selected works are also published by play and musical publishing company Samuel French. Dennis Green, a LeAp teaching artist who worked with the students at Lower Manhattan Arts Academy and has been involved with the program since its inception in 2006, said he encourages the students to go beyond topics like vampires, love triangles and other themes that permeate popular culture, and instead sift through their own lives and surroundings for inspiration. Many of the plays explore issues relevant to teenagers, including parental pressures, friendship and dreams for the future. More than a few of the selected works confronted bullying. Green often finds himself surprised by which students turn in some of the most promising work. "There are always some kids that are more extroverted," said Green. "[Raina] wasn't a very demonstrative or extroverted young woman, so it was kind of interesting and it was a little bit of a surprise when I got that play from her because it's surprising and mature in some ways." Like many opening night productions on 42nd Street, the theater was packed and the dimming of the lights indicated the show was starting. But less typical was the ebullient energy of the crowd of family, friends and teachers who stood up and cheered during curtain calls and clapped along to Pharrell's "Happy" at the end of the show. Opening night was a celebration. Many of the performers in "Friendship in Dust" had been friends for a few years, but working on the show brought them closer, and introduced them to a new community of teenage thespians from across the city. And For Schoen Thomas, adding 'published playwright' to her resume is only the beginning. "I never realized I could actually do something like this, so it's definitely something I'm going to try and build on," said Schoen Thomas after the show, who held a bouquet of sunflowers tucked under her arm, a gift from her mother. "The theater itself, it really boosts confidence, even shy people in a simple high school production. I've seen kids just get transformed."