It all started with a wedding in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe nearly three years ago.
There, the director of Marsh Youth Theatre, Rebecca Cervantes, struck up a conversation with the bride, who teaches acting to teenagers at a boarding school in Harare, and the two clicked. So when the Marsh Youth Theater program won a grant to enroll international students, Cervantes reached out.
MonLater, 10 teenage girls from Zimbabwe and San Francisco have written short plays and will perform their own plays at the first International Teen Performance Festival at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco on June 11-12. The anthology of performances will be available in person and will also be streamed online. When the lights go out and the theater goes silent, the young solo performers will take the audience on journeys that range from a polyglot’s adventure to a world in 2043 where global warming has reached its extreme.
“What I remember is the feel and authenticity of their stories, and their energy to bring those stories to the world,” said Stephanie Weisman, Founder and Creative Director of The Marsh.
Although coming from different cultural backgrounds, the works of the young performers share similar themes, including social media, parental pressure, career struggles and environmental issues. Some of their works feel like a punch in the stomach. Some deliberately make the public uncomfortable. All are designed to make viewers think.
Sarah Nyakanda, 18, realized global warming was getting worse when she noticed weather patterns changing in Zimbabwe. IIt had started raining in the winter, instead of the summer, and it was “blisteringly hot” in December, she said.
“Changes in weather conditions have occurred all over the world,” Nyakanda wrote in an email interview. “However, it started to (sink) when it affected me and my country.”
She will feature “Times Up,” a play that depicts the world in 2043, when the government must provide artificial air, manufactured water, and lab-made fruits and vegetables. The storyline follows how this life affects people from different walks of life, including those who least expected to be affected.
Nyakanda recalls the workshop’s first class — a Zoom session that ran from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. — was both exciting and nerve-wracking. In the weeks that followed, girls in Zimbabwe encountered difficulties ranging from unstable or slow internet connections to power cuts that left the girls sitting in the dark, their phones the only source of light.
But young performers goodnaturally. Soon the workshop sessions had become not just about games, but tthe bonds and relationships they have built with each other. They shared difficult stories and fight-or-flight experiences, and they imagined passing a ball from one Zoom box to another, describing the colors of the ball and their feelings at the time.
“They felt supported by each other, so they were able to say a lot more,” Cervantes said. “A person who begins to open up helps others to open up too.”
It takes courage to sharee these personal stories so publicly. “Adventures of an Aspiring Polyglot” by Emily Maremont, a teenager from San Francisco follows, for example, a young American who decides to become a polyglot, someone who speaks several languages. However, as she learns more about her family’s past, everything she knows about the role of language in her life is transformed. The story that Iis inspired by Maremont’s own experiences as his family lost their own Yiddish language, as well as his passion for language conservation and revitalization.
In many school plays, teenagers are given roles in “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty,” which aren’t necessarily about kids, Weisman recalls. At Marsh, young people define their own roles.
Mudiwa Bhatasara, 13, the youngest student in the workshop, will perform a piece about how social media affects children. She used to be “a shy snail,” she says, but playing helps her come out of her shell and start feeling refreshed and independent.
“Here is a place where they can see who they are. Themselves. It’s the beginning of having a voice,” Weisman said.
They just want people to listen.
“Even though we see the wrongs around us, for whatever reason nothing ever changes,” 14-year-old Mila Linker wrote in the description of her show, “Change the World: No One Will Do It For You.” She will act as a youth representative giving a speech on the evening news, “because maybe a call to action is what we need to finally make a difference.”
Contact Junyao Yang at [email protected]
INTERNATIONAL TEEN PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL
When: 11 a.m. June 11-12
Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco; also available for streaming
Tickets: Free, but donations of $10 to $30 are encouraged; themarsh.org.