'I'm going to be a real writer when I grow up, so - this is me at 17!"
Kya Shirley Johnson beams as she makes this declaration, looking the world straight in the eye, so to speak, through the lens of a handheld video camera. The high school senior had just watched a rehearsal of F.A.T., a monologue she wrote that's being performed this week in a professional production at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
What began as a junior-year religion class assignment at Little Flower High School was chosen to be one of three works offered as part of this year's Philadelphia Young Playwrights festival. It's another step toward the career the ambitious Johnson sees for herself.
"It's about this girl; she's overweight but she's still beautiful, though, and that's what she's trying to say," Johnson said. "In the monologue I talk about one of the experiences I actually had going on a date and my date cracking a joke about whether I was going to be able to fit into the movie seat."
Actress Ashley Kelley delivers the monologue while walking on a treadmill, a visual symbol of the emotional work the character does as she asks, and tries to answer, the question of whether it's possible to love someone else before she fully loves herself.
The three central characters featured in this year's festival couldn't be more different: a teenage girl working through body issues; a student wondering how her Asian family would react to her African American boyfriend; and a young Israeli Jew who falls in love with an Arab. But anyone who's been young will recognize the common themes of self-doubt, self-discovery, and the desire for acceptance that run through them like a ribbon, tying together three disparate events into one universal experience.
This year's festival offerings include two monologues - Johnson's F.A.T., and Torn Between by Aimee Leong, a junior at the Science Leadership Academy - and a full-company play, Milk and Honey, by Emily Acker, a Baldwin School graduate. They were selected from among 1,000 submitted works by students at Philadelphia-area schools, said Glen Knapp, the festival's executive director. Months of refining and workshopping the scripts, followed by weeks of rehearsals, culminates in a series of professional performances at the theater today through Friday.
Leong's Torn Between, performed by Bi Jean Ngo, takes place on a crowded trolley carrying a young Asian woman to the home of her boyfriend, George, who is African American. Along the way, the girl questions whether dating him isn't somehow being disloyal to her family, and whether she should stay with him or exit the relationship like a passenger from the trolley.
In Leong's case, the monologue didn't grow out of a personal experience, but writing it led her to confront and work through some very real and complicated issues. Previously, Leong said, she didn't even keep a journal, let alone publicly discuss issues of race, sexuality, and family loyalty.
"I was scared to 'go there,' in my writing and in the first couple of performances sitting in the audience and hearing the audience's reactions," Leong said. "I didn't know if they'd like it or they'd feel offended. The whole process, it kind of made me look at writing in a totally new perspective."
That's a major goal of the Young Playwrights program, which gives student writers opportunities to work with theater professionals to refine their work, and in the process to make discoveries about their own place in the world or about a talent they never knew they had, said David Bradley, a Philadelphia-based theater professional and arts educator who directs Acker's Milk and Honey.
That play began as a writing assignment in an 11th-grade theater class, but it lit a literary fire in Acker's belly. Now a freshman at Northwestern University, she's aiming for a career in the theater.
Set against the backdrop of both family dysfunction and Arab-Israeli conflict, Milk and Honey is a winner of the 2009 Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition, and it had an Off-Broadway reading. It's the most fully realized of the three works and serves as the festival's centerpiece.
In it, a young man named Jonah, who is about to leave for elite military training, stumbles into an East Jerusalem neighborhood where he encounters - and ultimately falls in love with - a young Palestinian. It's a multilayered story in which Jonah discovers and explores his homosexuality while confronting grief over his mother's death and his father's expectation that Jonah will fulfill his own thwarted dreams of military glory. The work was influenced by Acker's experience during a high school study-abroad program in Israel, she said.
"This whole event is happening because three young women stared at a blank screen and said, 'What if?' " said Bradley. "The three plays are all about what happens when you meet the 'other,' and what happens when you challenge yourself and your own perception of that 'other.' "
Bradley worked with Acker on the play in earlier versions during workshop sessions at Temple University last year. "In the time since, what [Acker] has done is deepen it, and gone further to really explore those issues and feelings." That continued in a recent rehearsal, where Bradley worked with local professional actor Robert DaPonte, as Jonah, and Emilie Krause, a Temple University theater student who plays Jonah's sister, Ariella, on a key scene in which Ariella figures out what's been keeping her brother after school.
Acker's dialogue reveals a complicated sibling interplay that is by turns playful, confrontational, and emotionally charged, as Jonah finds himself torn between wanting to confide in his sister while needing to maintain the roles they both play in their family. His sister, of course, has her own issues.
"The first time it was read aloud was at school by my friends," Acker said. "I remember keeping my head down with my eyes closed for the full 45 minutes. By the time it was staged at Temple University with PYP, I was slightly more composed but I still remember hearing certain lines and cringing. I went home and changed them promptly!"
Since its beginnings in 1987, the Young Playwrights program has given more than 55,000 Philadelphia-area students in kindergarten through 12th grade the opportunity to work with more than 60 playwrights and other theater professionals. Among them are playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist whose Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue is playing at the Walnut Street Theatre through March 14. She got her start as a high school sophomore in 1993, when her first play was chosen to be performed as part of the Young Playwrights festival.