Race and racism are complicated subjects. Newton has recently needed to face some of that complexity as we grappled with community meetings on diversity boiling over with tension and emotion, racist incidents at our schools, questions about a sanctuary city status and more. Our high schools are microcosms of our larger community in many ways and issues of race are as complex for our young people as they are for adults. It was a recognition of this that sparked Melissa Bernstein, Newton Youth Players’ theater director to dream up The Monologue Project: Voices of Color. Melissa teamed up with Newton’s Youth Services Director Quinn Etchie and together with 12 Newton high school students they produced and performed original theater pieces that reflect the personal experiences of being a student of color in our community.
The stories were powerful and each one unique. Stories about the experience of being between cultures, about being held up to a white mainstream norm of beauty and found lacking because, of course, you are not white, about being asked to excuse the too frequent micro-aggressions like peers asking for “permission” to use racist language, and so much more.
One young woman, 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…”
Another young woman, Emily Lee, writes 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.”
The students worked for several months, developing their stories with two Melissa and Quinn acting as adult mentors and in the process creating a community of peers. The goal was to help each student, as Melissa Bernstein said, “Elaborate on their own stories, on their own terms.” As Quinn 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.”
An enrapt audience of 100 community members came to hear those stories on June 4th at Newton City Hall’s War Memorial Auditorium. There was a Q & A after the performance facilitated by Newton North High Principal Henry Turner. 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 allows a group who often feel unheard and undervalued to be heard – to be listened to.”
If you missed the event, the original writings are available in a short book at www.newtonma.gov/youth and a video of the performances can be seen there as well.