High school students bring discussion of race to campus

Central Touring Theater’s performance is a montage of social issues teens face daily.

Rebecca Bentz

Twenty young voices echoed off the walls of a Rarig Center theater Friday while teens tumbled across the stage or tangoed with other students.

Teens from St. Paul’s Central High School performed their entirely student-written show, “I’ll Take You There.” The performance focused on topics such as race, relationships and other social issues.

They’re issues that no one else in their school or community will talk about, the students said.

For the last 29 years, students in Jan Mandell’s advanced acting class have used performance art to generate discussion of important social issues. Friday’s University show exposed continuing problems of diversity in higher education.

“It’s important because it shows how teens think and act and how they go about life,” said Shontae Watson, a senior in the class. “Teens have just as much stress as college students and other older people.”

Crystal Spring, a University theater department alumna who interned in Mandell’s class for the past six months, said the discussion of important social issues isn’t happening anywhere else.

“Students of color do not have opportunities being given to them,” she said. “It’s important for the ‘U’ to know that this is going on.”

The Central Touring Theater group performs throughout middle and high schools in the Twin Cities. Their show is based on the actual experiences of the 20 teens in the class.

Luverne Seifert, the head of the University theater program, said the performance has a profound impact on the audience.

“It’s extraordinary to see a group of high school students perform at an almost professional level and to have created this work with their own words,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the touring company brought a show to the University.

A few years ago the University commissioned a show from Mandell’s class. “Barriers to Entry” illustrated problems hindering inner city students from continuing on to higher education, said theater arts associate professor Sonja Kuftinec.

Performing at the University is important for the students because it exposes them to higher education opportunities, Kuftinec said. The performances also offer members of the University and community a glimpse into the issues affecting today’s youth – issues that can sometimes prevent teens from continuing their education.

“Where are the students of color? Where are the students of the working class?” Mandell asked of the University’s campus.

The University’s theater department is attempting to improve diversity, Seifert said.

When the students visit, theater arts faculty make an effort to show them all the options for attending the University, including applications for the two to three departmental scholarships offered each year.

“We want them to feel confident and comfortable, and let them know that this is an option for them,” Kuftinec said.

Last year Jeni Lagos, a student from Central, won a full scholarship from the theater department. She was unavailable for comment.

But the University and the nation as a whole still have a long way to go with diversity in higher education, Mandell said.

“College students will come to the shows and say, ‘Wow, you’ve opened my eyes,’ while most of the kids performing can’t even get in to college,” she said. “What’s wrong with this picture?”