Washington, D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías squirms uncomfortably in her chair when asked if the object of her work is social transformation. “That would be presumptuous of me,” she says quickly, adding that “every artist hopes that they transform and change somebody for the better, for the point of deeper self-awareness.”
Whether or not Zacarías’ work is conceived with transformation in mind, that has clearly been the result of her award-winning dramas and her involvement as a leading voice for minorities and youth in contemporary American theater. As a Latina with family roots in Mexico, Uruguay, Lebanon, and Sweden, she knows what it feels like to be an outsider in a dominant culture, or to be connected to several very different cultures at the same time and to have to make sense of them. “I never felt fully part of any culture,” she says. “So, as a writer, I was always observing.”
Observation and experience led Zacarías to found Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT) in Washington 12 years ago. The award-winning arts nonprofit teaches playwriting to mostly minority students in D.C. urban schools with the aims of promoting literacy and conflict resolution while shepherding student work toward professional production. Recent collaborations have seen student work produced at the Smithsonian Institution and in several local professional theaters. In March, a new musical about the history and inhabitants of the White House will premiere at D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, co-written by Zacarías and students from a Washington public charter school.
“This touches on my love of connecting the work to the communities in which we live,” Zacarías explains. “For so many of these kids, no adult has ever really listened to them, for various reasons. ... Being a kid is [being in] a disenfranchised group a lot of times. The whole point of YPT is to give them a voice.”
Zacarías long ago developed a collaborative method for working with students, a majority of whom are elementary and middle schoolers. Students are given a topic, sometimes proposed by sponsoring institutions or organizations, and asked to come up with ideas about it. This is followed by weeks or months of in-school dramatic writing workshops with Zacarías or other YPT staff, in which careful revision and responsibility for one’s work are emphasized. Afterward, Zacarías or other YPT staffers help mold the students’ writing into its final dramatic form.
In the case of Chasing George Washington: A White House Adventure, Zacarías was asked to write a play about the White House for the White House Historical Association and the Kennedy Center. She in turn invited a group of local elementary students to collaborate with her on the project through six weeks of in-school workshops. In mid-March, these same students will hear their own words performed onstage by professional actors at one of the nation’s premiere arts venues.
“Dialogue is the most natural form of communication for kids,” Zacarías says. “And then to have an actor read back your work, it’s the most natural form of listening, to hearing what others have to say. It’s empowering.”
Zacarías’ recent collaborations with students include African Roots/Latino Soul (2006), which traces the African, Caribbean, and Latino heritages of students from two inner-city schools, and Retratos (2005), an exploration of identity through centuries of Latin American portraiture. Both were performed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Discovery Theater. Other collaborations have included the community-based plays The Other River (2006) and The Invisible City (2001), produced in association with an area theater’s community play-building program and based on stories drawn from residents of Washington, D.C.
“The power of theater is that it doesn’t just rely on ideas, but on people,” Zacarías says. “It requires a village for its work. There’s a definite communal aspect.”
AN international relations major, Zacarías says it was the experience of working with disenfranchised youth overseas that led her to consider founding an organization like YPT.
“It made social, psychological, and artistic sense to me,” she declares, becoming somewhat impassioned. “Just because you grow up poor and without resources, when too many students are being killed from senseless violence ....” She pauses. “I knew what to do. The one skill I had that was different from other people’s was that I could go into a classroom and teach kids how to tell their stories by writing plays.” Twelve years later, Zacarías estimates YPT has worked with more than 30,000 urban children and youth.