On December 10 and 11, 2020, students from San Francisco’s Downtown High School performed an hour-long exhibition of original works, created with their teachers Charmaine Shuford and Robert Coverdell, A.C.T. teaching artist Carlos Aguirre, with classroom support from Sabrina Belara and Bianca Fernandez, and in collaboration with the writing staff and tutors from 826 Valencia.
The performance, titled For the Heart of Frisco, was the final presentation of the Acting for Critical Transformations Project at Downtown High School. Students wrote, directed, and acted in monologues and short plays about gentrification and activism in the city. In Eulogy to San Francisco, the class held a candlelight vigil for their city, which has long ceased to be affordable and equitable. This Trend Cannot Continue focused on painful truths about the cost of laiving here: the rent has gone up $2,400 in 24 years, and landlords raise the rent by 2.6% every year. In Kimberly’s Play, a group of tenants organized to protest a rent hike in their building. In a video project shot on location at Oakdale, West Point, and Hunter’s Point, students spoke lovingly about their neighborhoods. If I Left the City was a beautiful and candid response to living in a city that doesn’t love you back. The exhibition ended with Rebirth, during which the young artists voiced their hope that San Francisco will become a more welcoming place for low-income and immigrant families.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic forced the class to rehearse and perform online, the group of 12 found strength in each other. “Connection issues were one of the biggest challenges,” says teacher Charmaine Shuford, who has been part of A.C.T.’s collaboration with Downtown High School since 2018. “It is hard for our students to be in parts of the city with broadband issues. Also, they are living in multigenerational homes, so their priorities at times were to assist their family members.” Student Jamir Pulliam agreed that creating theater through Zoom had its ups and downs, but said that by swapping scripts and being flexible, the class was able to pull through. “At least we went through the process together,” says classmate Kimberly Guevara.
A.C.T. has been working with Downtown High School since 2011, and the partnership is among the longest running in our Education and Community Programs. Every year, A.C.T.’s teaching artists work with students at the project-based credit recovery high school; Carlos Aguirre has been the leading teaching artist there since 2018. He has weekly meetings with students to do warmups, play theater games, and work on building scenes. “The education team at A.C.T. has never said no and has always had dreams for the students that match our own,” says teacher Robert Coverdell. “They have always tried to create a safe and inviting space for our students, so that our students can be heard and shine.”
A.C.T.’s virtual season also inspired the class. The exhibition’s first image of a flickering candle mirrored the final scene of Blood Wedding, and the live Zoom production was modeled after our fall lineup, including In Love and Warcraft, The Thanksgiving Play, Moon Man Walk, and Ironbound. “We got to create moments that would not have been possible on stage,” says Coverdell. “The Zoom structure allowed those moments to truly shine.”
Against the backdrop of a pandemic that has exacerbated existing issues of access and inequality, Shuford says that arts education is more important than ever. Through making theater together, the students were able to express their feelings, build confidence, and feel empowered in the process. “They need opportunities to feel pride about what they can offer right now,” Shuford writes. “And the arts is that vehicle.”
To learn more about the Acting for Critical Transformations Project, visit their website here.
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