Education | Stage & Screen

Student Activism Takes the Stage

Hancock College Prep turns conflict, from the personal to the global, into theater

Courtesy of Hancock High School

The day before the opening night of Hancock College Preparatory High School’s theater showcase “Content Warning: Real Life,” the students in Sarah Baranoff’s Drama II and Drama III classes are thrumming with nervous excitement. In the darkened performance hall within the West Elsdon selective enrollment high school, students walk in and out with costumes in hand, leap on and off the stage, and chatter in the audience seats.

“Are you excited?” a student asks another.

“Are you kidding me?” he responds playfully. “I’m super excited.”

The class begins with Baranoff maneuvering thirty-five students onto the wooden stage to practice their final bow—a task which proves challenging, given that safety concerns keep the performers from using the thirty feet of stage behind the curtains. According to Baranoff, administrators told her that contractors would be enlisted to help fix the stage. But with these promises unkept only hours before the show, she affectionately calls the performances “an experiment in minimalist theater.”

The students spend the rest of the period running through six ten-minute plays—each of which they had written, directed, and acted. In November, the students had been split into groups and given the opportunity to pick a news story to use as inspiration for their plays. The resulting plays tackle difficult topics––from racism in corporate advertising and the #MeToo movement to the death of a Hancock student years ago––with sincerity and passion.

For many students, drama class at Hancock became a space where they could learn more about themselves and gain the self-confidence needed to take the stage. Joey Padilla, a senior, credited the class for the growth he experienced in his high school career.

“In middle school, I felt like I thought drama wasn’t cool because I was still in the process of figuring out what’s cool and what’s not cool because of that typical masculinity thing,” said Padilla. “After freshman and sophomore year, I realized that doesn’t matter. I found myself and I accepted myself. Drama class gave me that license to be who I want and I don’t care what anyone else says about me. That gave me a lot of respect for other people too.”

Padilla participated in the fourth play of the show, ¡Viva el pueblo! Long Live the Nation!: a reenactment of Catalonia’s pursuit of independence from Spain, a process that began in 2014 and continues today. Padilla played two characters: a cameraman and Jose, a Spanish man who disagrees with the independence movement. While Padilla didn’t know much about the movement before the conception of the play, as he learned more about Catalonia, he became more passionate about the country’s independence movement. He practiced his lines every day  and adopted a Spanish accent for his character, all in preparation for his stage debut.

“I saw myself on a poster and I was like, ‘damn, that’s crazy!’ I’m still nervous because it’s my first play, but I just need to stay focused and passionate and everything will be fine,” said Padilla.

Kat Gomez, a junior at Hancock whose group tackled the difficult issue of suicide, hopes that her play can inspire audience members to start making a change at home. Gomez was assigned to direct Focus, which tells the story of a young girl who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts after being bullied at school. Though the girl recovers after attending therapy, her father struggles with parental guilt and a strained marriage and, at the end of the play, attempts suicide himself.

Despite the play’s tragic end, Gomez wants her play to act as a learning moment so classmates can begin to check up on each other—and their parents as well.

“I feel like a lot of kids don’t have a really deep strong connection where they’re talking with their parents about really deep stuff,” she said. “A lot of people see their parents as just parents—you don’t see them like they have feelings too. I feel like kids should ask their parents if they can help around the house or if they can do anything.”

During the question and answer session that followed the show, an audience member asked how students were able to portray roles that required a familiarity with deep emotional pain. After his fellow classmates cheered Adrian Sandoval, who played the father in Focus, for volunteering to answer the question, Sandoval said that needing to act dead was difficult mentally, but he was able to push through with the support of his classmates. Baranoff echoed his sentiment, noting that while many students confronted emotional blocks—especially with The Untold Stories, which covered the #MeToo movement, and In Memoriam, which was dedicated to a Hancock student lost to gun violence two years ago—the students continued to support each other through the discomfort and fear. The pamphlet for “Content Warning: Real Life” even included a page with crisis and support hotlines.

Jo Luna, a senior, used satire and humor to tackle institutional racism in large corporations. Her group’s play, Give the People What They Want, was created from a set of improvised skits and culminated in a play that opened with a musical number (accompanied by a student’s live piano playing) that addressed the Kellogg’s Corn Pops box scandal, in which the cartoon on the back of a Corn Pops box depicted a sea of yellow corn pops in a mall setting. The lone brown corn pop in the cartoon was the janitor.

“Big companies are getting away with subtle racist messages, and we’re just letting [them] because we’re consuming the things they’re giving us,” said Luna, who plays a mother, a lawyer, and the CEO of Kellogg’s. “I want [the audience] to stand up and say that it’s okay to call out big companies like this. We need to stand up for ourselves.”

Luna, who delivered her lines atop a piano in the opening musical number, says that she plans to pursue a double major in computer science and theater to pursue her long-term goal of being on Broadway.

“Even being in the orchestra for a Broadway show, or being the people behind the stage setting up the props, anything. I just want to be on Broadway somehow,” said Luna.

Daniella Cruz, who played another CEO in Give the People What they Want, also admitted that it was hard for her and her groupmates to play the CEOs—even satirically.

“It was tough to get into a mindset where one would be hateful to others and make offensive jokes,” said Cruz in the Q&A. “We just had to make us laugh despite how uncomfortable we were.”

Like her classmates, junior Liliana Villa was deeply familiar with the intersection of art and activism. Villa plays a professor in her group’s play, …but for what?, which was inspired by a story about a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was stopped and detained by border patrol on her way to the hospital. Considering the current tensions surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Villa hopes that her group’s play can be a way for the audience to learn and empathize with others.

As a student representative with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) student advisory council, which makes policy recommendations and presents them to new CPS CEO Janice Jackson, Villa says “Content Warning: Real Life” was the perfect opportunity to combine her passions for art and student activism. After graduation, Villa is looking to go into local politics, where she hopes to be an alderman or a community organizer and work with youth. But even as a student, she is acutely aware of the power student organizing can have.

“I started off being in my student council. It was in that space that I realized that student voices can really have an impact in the decision being made in our schools. Being in student council is where I learned about the inequality with all our schools. I didn’t get it. Why do we have inequity? That isn’t fair. That inspired me to keep going,” said Villa. “There’s something about making a change for better that was really important for me. Through student voice, I learned that my voice is important and so is everyone else’s.”

For Angel Hilario Alvarez, a senior at Hancock and co-writer of ¡Viva el pueblo! Long Live the Nation!, the subject matter hit even closer to home. As someone of Spanish descent and with family from Catalonia, Alvarez found that his personal background meshed with his interest in historical conflicts. As a self-described “120% theater kid” with extensive experience in theater, Alvarez was able to both act and try his hand at directing.

Alvarez plays two characters: an anchorman and the prime minister of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who he embodies to deliver a rousing address to a rally (played by the students sitting in the audience). For Alvarez, playing Spanish characters, speaking in Spanish, English, and Catalan, and being able to teach his peers the Spanish accent and mannerisms was not only an opportunity to explore his identity, but also a way to extend the opportunity to audience members.

“This is a predominately Hispanic community and school, so we’re going to have Hispanic parents here who either speak English or they don’t, and if they speak English it might be a very little bit. So I think that our play, our use of Spanish will really open up to those parents,” said Alvarez. “I just like that the idea of going against that Tower of Babel thing in the Bible, you know, where all of the languages were switched. In our play we’re bringing all three of them together so many people can understand. I think doing that on stage will really show that culture to the audience and make them, if not anything, feel at home.”

Alvarez, who is pursuing a position in the priesthood following his graduation, hopes to use his love for theater by advocating for the arts in his future parish and community.

“Because the arts have opened up a door for me and my personal life and my experience…I think so many other people should have these opportunities. It’s so bad that people don’t,” Alvarez said. “The budget cuts happening in CPS, schools getting their arts programs taken away—it’s so horrible. I think that the arts are equally important as academics, because you need a little bit of both: you need the blank paper that you write on but you also need that colored ink. If we’re not using the arts to their fullest potential, which for me is causing change and causing action, then what are we doing?”

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