High school students tell the story of the Salinas Valley in the words of those who lived it.
Thursday, February 26, 2004
Everett Alvarez High School sits on the eastern edge of Salinas, near businesses and houses and farmland and hills. The history and beauty of the area have inspired the writings of Steinbeck and others who have tried to describe the unique setting and culture that have colored the community. So it’s only fitting that Alvarez drama teacher Michael Roddy is leading his students in Salinas Chronicles, a series of short skits he wrote based on the history of the Salinas Valley and its residents, some of whom are the families of the students acting in the play.
Having never been to Alvarez before, I ask for directions to the drama department and am pointed to a large building over a small grassy hill. When I arrive, I’m confused because I don’t see actors. Boys dressed in sports gear are lifting each other over their shoulders and running around the room. It turns out I have stumbled upon wrestling practice.
Student Erin Davison, who is acting in Roddy’s production, finds me and leads me to where the drama students are rehearsing. “I really like drama,” she says. “It’s interesting that it’s not just a play, that we’re telling real stories.”
Davison takes me past the wrestlers, behind the curtain, and into the “backstage” area where dozens of kids are clustered in a small room, rehearsing. The kids seem excited, and Roddy shares their enthusiasm.
“This is the fourth year we’ve done this kind of play, an oral history,” says Roddy. “It’s our commitment to act as a forum for the community, to tell their story. This year about half the stories are about the families of students at Alvarez.”
Skipping from era to era through Salinas history, the play talks about teachers, cowboys, martial artists, simple folk and community leaders, all of whom influenced the development of this agricultural community and shaped it into what it is today. Thirty-three students play about 140 roles, telling the history of Salinas from many different angles in 11 different scenes.
The stories vary from light and fluffy to morbid and dismal. Scene Four, for example, is about Salinas’ town mascot, Rags, a mangy mutt who eludes dogcatchers and the usual stray-dog fate of being sent to the pound. Given a voice and a human face by Erin McClellan, “Rags” is a humorous scene. Other scenes depict survivors of World War II’s Bataan Death March and of the Donner Party, bringing a darker edge to the play.
Brytni Worsham, a sophomore, has been in every school play since her freshman year. “We’re each doing a lot of parts, so I get to play different sorts of characters,” she says. She thinks the historical perspectives explored in this production are “really interesting.”
The kids seem to be having fun—a little too much fun, in fact, during “The Judge Who Defied Death,” the story of Judge Breen, who survived the ill-fated Donner Party as a young boy and went on to serve the courts of Salinas for several years. In this scene, the characters of Judge Breen and the Grim Reaper discuss Breen’s survival and rescue. The students are goofing off, and Roddy reminds them of the seriousness of the subject matter. They snap back into role, as stage manager Deirdre McCalib feeds them their lines and fills in for absent actors.
The second rehearsal I watch takes place in Hartnell College’s Studio Theater, where the play will be performed this weekend. As the kids rush around exploring their new environment, I ask how the play is coming along. “Real nicely,” Roddy replies. “It’s the first time we’re in this theater, we don’t have a real one at the school. Some of the kids are experiencing a real stage for the first time.”
Indeed, many of the kids seem very excited at having a real space to work in, with no noisy wrestling practice to shout their lines over. This is a space where they can let the drama flow without distraction.
Roddy cares deeply about his mission: telling the history of Salinas from the perspectives of its residents. “People will see this and it’ll bring the community together,” he says. “This is the time and place to tell this story.
“Drama isn’t just Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett,” he continues. “It’s also our own lives.”
Salinas Chronicles plays Thur-Sat at 7pm, and Sun at 2pm at Hartnell College, Salinas. tickets at the door or call 796-7841.