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.”