Twelve Newton students of color recently shared their experiences of race and racism as part of “The Monologue Project: Voices of Color.” Their captivating stories were captured on video during an evening theater performance held earlier this month, and also preserved in a book. Both are now available on the Newton Youth Services website.
The stories are powerful and unique. They tell of living between cultures, of being held up to a white mainstream norm of beauty and then found lacking, or being asked to excuse micro-aggressions like peers requesting “permission” to use racist language. They are about what it is like to be part of a community, both a school community and larger one, where young people aren’t always sure they belong.
One rising junior, Anna Jones, writes, “…’cause you can’t not laugh at their racist jokes and not expect everyone to be offended, even if you are the joke, even if your brother is the joke, even if your cousins are the joke, even if you are tired of smiling for them, ‘cause they only want your joy and never your sadness…”
Race and racism are complicated subjects. Newton recently publicly grappled with this complexity when community meetings about diversity boiled over with tension and emotion, racist incidents occurred in schools, city officials debated sanctuary city status…the list doesn’t end there. High schools are microcosms of the larger community in many ways, and issues of race are as complex for young people as they are for adults.
This reality sparked Melissa Bernstein, Newton Theatre Company’s director, to dream up “The Monologue Project, ”…as a way for students of color in Newton to reflect on their personal experiences.” Bernstein teamed up with Newton’s Youth Services Director, Quinn Etchie, and together they guided the Newton high school students to produce and perform original theater pieces to a standing-room only audience at Newton City Hall on June 4, 2017.
Newton North High School graduating senior, Emily Lee, wrote about her experience of being bi-cultural, “…There’s nothing wrong with being Korean, and being American is an equally wonderful thing. The trouble comes when you realize you can’t hold both. It becomes too heavy, things get dropped and broken, and people always get hurt.”
During their work over several months students both developed their stories and created a close community of peers. The goal was to help each student, as Bernstein said, “Elaborate on their own stories, on their own terms.” Etchie said, “We wanted to offer a space for students to reflect and share their experiences directly related to their identities as young people of color.”
Newton North High School Principal Henry Turner facilitated a question and answer forum following the student performances. When asked by Mr. Turner what could Newton do to provide support for young people of color in the community, the common answer was, “Promote more programs like this, programs that allow people who often feel unheard and undervalued to be heard – to be listened to.”
Both the video and the book of original work are available at www.newtonma.gov/youth