It's the first day of school, and the bell is about to ring. Teens crowd the halls chatting with friends. Their eyes dart around nervously as they make their way to class.
The scene is interrupted when a freshman accidentally bangs into an upperclassman. The freshman struggles to stand up. The teens turn to the audience and sing:
Don't be a fool. If you want to be cool, you've got to learn the rules. If you want to survive in this high school, you gotta play the rules.
Following the chorus, the cast serenades the freshman with a list of "rules" to survive high school. It's a scene from Beyond Me, performed at Lisner Auditorium by the theater troupe City at Peace. Cast members are the first to admit that many of these rules, if followed, can be destructive. But by emphasizing the rigid social order of teen life, the players hope to hold up a mirror to their audience–and get them to think.
City at Peace was the brainchild of Paul Griffin, a Chicago native who, with the help of a committed board and foundation money, founded the troupe in 1994 to bring kids together. The teens, who meet in a studio in Shaw, don't need acting experience to be members–kids from across the area, with or without experience, audition every year.
The cast is ultimately made up of 60 local teens who write and perform a play. But that's not all they do–by showtime, they have also spent months in exercises that build trust, release anger, teach conflict resolution, and encourage self-reflection. The hope is that deconstructing their life experiences will lead to better cross-cultural understanding. That's why the performance is so powerful–what they learn about themselves and each other is the genesis for future scenes in the production.
One exercise requires students to step across a chalk line if they meet a certain criterion. The topics start off easy, like "step across the line if you like the color blue." But they progress to more serious issues like "step across the line if you've ever been abused." This is when the teens begin to open up–as the first brave soul steps across the line and then another follows.
"You'll get to see how alike you are and begin to trust each other," says cast member Aminata Ahmadu. "You'll think, 'She may be rich and I may be poor, but we both feel lonely.' "
Another exercise asks the teens to recite what others would say at their funeral.
"That really affected me," says Simone Aponte. "I realized the face I was showing the world was not how I felt inside."
The first city at peace show centered around ways to make Washington a better place. The 1999 cast decided to look inward for stories–among them alcoholism, rape, and violence.
"I was amazed that every single kid in City at Peace had a story that could bring us to tears," says cast member Jeremy Eaton. "As I walked down the hall the next day, I remember looking at people I didn't know and thinking, 'Wow, every single one of these kids has a life story.' "
And a handful of hidden anxieties. Few of the teens fear that the next Dylan Klebold will ravage their class with a gun. "We've had metal detectors in our school for years," sighs one cast member.
Instead, they worry how their peers see them and whether their ideas, personalities, and clothes will be accepted. Teens compare high school to the feeling of walking on eggshells–one step from the social norm and you're crushed.
Nineteen-year-old Kassim "K.C." McNeil is tall and lanky. Growing up in the District, he's seen his share of ugly moments. When he was six, he witnessed a shooting a few blocks from his home. He joined the City at Peace cast three years ago.
"I heard the truth," says McNeil, describing why the troupe appealed to him. "It wasn't a kids-versus-adults kind of thing. It was a plea for an ear."
If you are smart, hide it, shout the group of teenagers on stage. Don't go around joining the French club, math club, or science club. There's nothing wrong with being smart, but no one likes a know-it-all.
McNeil was a freshman at Anacostia High School when he caught on that the "cool" place to hang out was in the school basement. His classmates would go down to smoke a joint and make out.
"It wasn't cool to be smart," he says. "People start to think you think you own the world."
So McNeil tried to fit in. He began to cut class to spend more time in the basement, all the while trying to keep up his grades.
"I was always worried I was going to be kicked out of school," he says. He ended up leaving voluntarily when his girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy. He enrolled in night school so he could work to support his son.
"If I could do high school all over," he says, "I wouldn't hide a damn thing."
McNeil's story differs from that of Zak Angel, who grew up in suburban Springfield. Angel, one of the few white males in the cast, says that the other kids' stories surprised him. He attributes his naiveté to having delved into theater.
"I found theater my freshman year," he says. "If I hadn't found it, I probably would have slipped into some clique that goes out drinking all the time or something."
But McNeil and Angel, who come from opposite sides of the river, have one thing in common: Both are self-conscious physically. Angel, a junior at West Springfield High School, says he has always been concerned with his weight.
"When I get dressed in the morning, I look in the mirror to make sure nothing is sticking out," he says. He believes his insecurity is beginning to affect his social life: "I'm constantly in a romantic relationship just so I don't feel ugly."
On stage, a girl struts over to the freshman and waves her finger in his face. Listen sweetheart, we like buff boys, she says. And from what I see, you don't got much.
It's no surprise that teenage girls watch their weight. But boys do, too. Angel longs to have the lean figure of Keanu Reeves in the movie The Matrix.
"It's all about appearance," agrees McNeil. "I think so many guys started wearing baggy clothes because they make you look bigger and stronger."
McNeil laughs and uses his hand to tighten his pants around his leg.
"I may be thin. But in these clothes I don't look so small," he says.
Simone Aponte feels she has to come long way since becoming a cast member of City at Peace. A senior at Montgomery Blair High School, she was voted "most transformed." She wants to go to Northwestern University and become a broadcaster.
"City at Peace made me take a step back and not take high school so seriously," she says. "For a long time I was being who everyone else wanted me to be."
You are your clique, a cast member sings to the confused freshman, so if you want to be cool, you better find some way to hang with the cool people.
Regardless of what crowd you run with, "people don't mingle across divides," says Aponte. Cliques are so pervasive that she didn't join the softball team her junior year because most of the girls on the team were from the all-white popular crowd.
"People say to themselves, 'I'm not a part of that group, so I can't join this,' " she says.
One City at Peace member describes a girl who decided she no longer liked the narrow-minded crowd she'd been friends with since grade school. But Jeremy Eaton, also a senior at Montgomery Blair, says it's difficult to make new friends.
"It's odd for someone outside your clique to come up and talk to you," Eaton says. "A brick wall goes up, and you're thinking, 'Why are you talking to me?' "
When Aminata Ahamadu speaks, she often runs her fingers through her long brown braids. Her family immigrated from Sierra Leone. Now a junior at Wilson High School, Ahmadu works after school for the Young Women's Project, teaching girls about contraceptives and a host of women's issues.
During grade school, Ahmadu was often made fun of by classmates for her African looks and accent. When heckled, she used to lower her head. One day she decided to stop acting ashamed.
"I noticed when I stopped staring at the floor, people respected me more," she says.
You got to walk around this joint like you own it. Don't be letting people push you around, sings the cast.
"People will test you," Ahmadu says. Her advice: "Walk straight with your head up, and look like you know where you're going. Otherwise someone will take advantage of you."
Jeremy Eaton, 17, is considering a move to New York to pursue acting when she graduates from Montgomery Blair in June. She is sure of that. What she is unsure of is her classmates.
"Everyone feels safe in their cliques. But I wonder how many friends really reach out and get to know one another," Eaton says.
And how many actually talk to someone when they have a problem? Teens often don't trust one another; fewer trust adults.
If you want to be cool, you can't let anyone know who you are. Not your friends. Not your family. Not even yourself, the teens tell the audience. It's the final "rule" in the scene, and the audience, made up of many high-schoolers, cheers ecstatically.
"Something as stupid as tripping down the stairs is a worry," says Aponte, who explains that if you do trip, you run the risk of being stigmatized as a klutz for the next four years. "At City at Peace rehearsals, I can trip, fall flat on my face, and everyone in the cast would laugh and pick me up."
"I was never open with people," says Ahmadu. "Now I realize everyone has a story."