Out of character

Theater program lets youths step into a different role

Kevin Joseph (left) of Dorchester plays a Lincoln figure and Rondale Davis (right), also of Dorchester, plays Booth in ''Topdog/Underdog,'' performed by the MissionSAFE summer theater group. Kevin Joseph (left) of Dorchester plays a Lincoln figure and Rondale Davis (right), also of Dorchester, plays Booth in ''Topdog/Underdog,'' performed by the MissionSAFE summer theater group. (Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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When teenagers swear a lot, they usually get disapproving looks. But at the Cambridge YMCA earlier this month, off-color speech drew applause.

There was, for example, Rondale Davis, playing a hustler in Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer-winning play "Topdog/Underdog." When the 18-year-old Dorchester resident is startled by an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in whiteface, he slides from easy patter to expletive-laden scolding, much to the crowd's approval.

The response was directed at the concluding performance of the MissionSAFE summer theater group, whose eight players bested jitters to present scenes exploring love, violence, racism, and poverty to an audience that included the state's education secretary, Paul Reville.

The Roxbury-based nonprofit helps urban youths develop leadership, creative, and professional skills. About 100 students receive a stipend to participate each summer and each school year.

This is the second time in three years MissionSAFE has offered the theater program, whose participants met for five hours a day at Simmons College. Other options included a girls' poetry club, a boys' etiquette group, and internships at State Street Bank, said Davis. Students also went on field trips and did community service.

Boston English football player Dynzel Brown, 16, of Mattapan, said he initially chose theater because "I thought it was the easiest," he said at a final dress rehearsal. "At the beginning I was going to quit because she was getting me mad."

"She" was director and playwright Kartina Richardson, 24, who readily confessed to the charges.

"The first rule we set was take risks, get out of your comfort zone," she said. "I push them, and it gets really aggravating for them. . . . Most of them, they don't give up. It's so important to set extremely high expectations," especially for teenagers who might have been overlooked in the past.

At the dress rehearsal, she put Brown through his paces - literally - making him run around in circles as he recited lines from John Patrick Shanley's play "The Red Coat."

"I left the party 'cause you weren't there," he said, looking moonstruck and breathing with some effort.

"Urgency, urgency!" she said. "What's the breeze like? What is beautiful about the breeze?"

Students chimed in with additional coaching, suggesting ways for love interest Sakoya Bennett to fall down when Brown leaned in to kiss her.

The emphasis on detail comes from the famous acting teacher Stella Adler, Richardson said.

"For teenagers, it's so important to be able to use your imagination and think creatively."

She said she also chose Adler's technique to let the students explore their emotions safely. Richardson contrasted it to Lee Strasberg's method acting, in which "you have to reach back into your own life."

"I thought that in six weeks, it would be much too difficult and too painful," said Richardson.

For Davis, that process of displacement gave him freedom onstage.

"I enjoy putting myself in someone else's shoes," said Davis, who's headed to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this fall but plans to apply to transfer to a theater program with Richardson's help. "I get to play with different emotions that I wouldn't use in my everyday life."

Told in a class exercise to act like an Egyptian peasant praying for rain, Davis exploded with anger.

"It felt so good that I was actually feeling vulnerable," he said. "I felt so exposed, like I put everything inside of me out there."

Going on stage, Brown said, was "a little scary. Everybody's looking at you."

After conquering that - and memorization - he said he felt "more courageous and willing to try new things."

As Richardson put it, "They've taken risks that people three times their age haven't done."

Her pride was obvious when she burst out crying while addressing the actors before the performance.

She said she also hopes the class would make the students, who are African-American, feel that theater belonged to them.

Growing up, "I always felt very weird. . . . I was the only brown person I knew who was into '30s screwball comedies," she said. "I think it's important for kids not to feel that way."

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