From the embers of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a theater company emerged. That troupe, the Unusual Suspects, employs improvisation techniques, onstage performance and audience interaction to help young people develop self confidence and the skills they’ll need to stay in school.
"Our founder, Laura Leigh Hughes, an actress, during the civil unrest, caught an ash in her hand and said, ‘If not me, then who?’" said the company's executive director, Sally Fairman.
In its early days the program worked with kids in foster homes. Now the program targets schools in which students face better-than-average odds of ending up in gangs, addiction or behind bars.
"They're writing about alcoholic fathers, they're writing about their siblings getting killed, they're writing about what happens in their lives, and amazingly, they bring a lot of humor to this work as well," said Fairman. "It’s a roller coaster theater ride."
When students stay after school to develop stories, write scripts, learn their lines and eventually perform, they offer adults a cultural barometer. "It’s transformative," Fairman said, "and it shows people that we’re all part of the same fabric."
Paola Lopez, a member of the troupe, is a 16-year-old senior at Fremont High School and said she can attest to that. "Last year in October my father passed away. And then my friend passed away in February, so soon after. It was like a lot of emotional stress and I can say depression. I didn't know where to turn to."
She met a teaching artist from Unusual Suspects, learned about the after-school program, and checked it out.
"I actually felt my voice was being heard my first day there," Lopez said, "and while I was there I forgot about all the things I was going through, and they helped me to leave that stress out of the place, out of that space, and just think about the energy of the ensemble, the team, and I love it."
Lopez joined a group of students writing a play called "La Flor Mojica," or "The Magical Flower."
"It's about a young girl, 17 years old, in search of a magical flower that will grant her two wishes," Lopez said, "one to bring her mother home from the mental hospital and one to get her back with her ex-boyfriend. But the thing getting in the way is her father who's an alcoholic who's trying to keep her in the mental hospital, and there's all these challenges going on."
These challenges often mirror what each student writer and actor faces in their own lives and neighborhoods.
"What I want people to take from that is that the power is always in you and you can always do something," Lopez said. "You just need to try hard. It's not what someone else tells you. You have to believe in yourself. You just have to keep on striving, keep on pushing forward, and things will turn out well."
The Unusual Suspects won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award three years ago. Fairman said she believes that when adults like her listen deeply to students, they realize they’re not alone, and that they’re more likely to stay in school and make wiser decisions.
Lopez said she agrees, "And the beauty of it is that they don't tell us what to write. We come up with it on our own."
The students perform "La Flor Mojica" at 2 p.m. Thursday at Fremont High School. The performance is free and open to the public.