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Outside is a torrential downpour, but inside the Manhattan Laundry, at 1328 Florida Ave. NW, the handwritten signs leading the way to the gray-walled and green-carpeted rehearsal space for City at Peace are holding up relentlessly. In the middle of a large room, a scene from S.O.S., a musical created to help save teens from “the violence and fear that surrounds them,” is being played out.
“Ma, this house is a mess!” one girl says, picking up clothing scattered across the floor. After handing over her invisible check and attending to the imaginary burnt dinner on the nonexistent stove, the mother, another teenager, asks her, “Asia, can you go down to 15th Street for me?” But Asia, in spite of “all I’ve done for you,” refuses to go down to the crack house for the person who’s made sure she had clothes on her back and a new hairdo. Mom, exasperated, gets dressed and walks out, not to return for days.
“OK, can we try it again?” Sandi Holloway prompts from the sidelines. When the artistic director first joined City at Peace in 1994 as a choreographer, she was used to working with the Duke Ellington School type, junior professionals in the tradition of Fame. But today’s workshop is different. Most of the 13- to 19-year-olds here have no background in acting or singing.
Yet they don’t seem to need it. The stories unfolding on the makeshift stage have a real-life edge that suggests they’ve been trained in the school of experience. The drug-addled parents, abandoned children, and abortion-seeking teens are all characters the cast members have met for themselves. So, although the challenges of coordination, “getting their arms to open up while their legs spin,” often drive Holloway around the bend—every time someone makes one move, someone else whines in agony—she knows that, compared with the obstacles the performers have to hurdle elsewhere in their lives, they are minor.
Every year since 1994, City at Peace has brought about 100 area teens to participate in theater and music workshops with an emphasis on conflict resolution. During training sessions, which began in September, students traded stories and then developed scripts for scenes. But the written endings are happy: what could have happened had adults taken the lead by communicating with the teens and setting healthy examples.
For now, it’s a role reversal. Like the X-Men and Batman battling the evil forces of Magneto and the Joker, they are forced to save their own days. A City at Peace flier reads: “There is racism behind us, homophobia in front of us, rape to the left, senseless violence to the right…We are in a fight for our lives and it feels like we are losing the battle. Sometimes we just need a hero…a Superhero. We are sending out an S.O.S.” —Ayesha Morris
S.O.S. will be presented Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium, 2465 6th St. NW., $10-$20. For more information, call (202) 319-2200.