Local playwright and educator Karen Zacarias chooses not to choose.

By all indications, there are no upper limits in sight for D.C.-based playwright Karen Zacarias’ career. She holds a master’s degree from the prestigious Boston University playwriting program, she won the National Hispanic Playwrights’ Project in 1998, and she was a recent winner in the Larry Neal Writers’ Competition. Her latest play, The Sins of Sor Juana, which opened Nov. 3 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, was a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and the Jane Chambers National Women Playwrights Award. If you’re still not impressed, you should know that Sor Juana was presented in workshop at the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And all the plaudits arrived before Zacarias’ 30th birthday.

So why would Zacarias step away from a likely path to Broadway to teach conflict-resolution playwriting to kids in D.C.’s schools, community centers, and homeless shelters? “I used to think I had a split personality,” Zacarias says. She didn’t know whether to “sit at home writing plays or go out and teach other people how to write plays.” But Zacarias no longer worries about divided loyalties. “It’s all about striking a balance,” she says.

That balance arrived early in her career. Her first play, Blue Buick in My Driveway, was produced at Source’s Washington Theatre Festival in 1994. Before long, Zacarias found herself on a Melton Arts Foundation (MAF) scholarship studying playwriting in Boston with literati like Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Elie Wiesel. As one of her scholarship requirements, Zacarias had to devise a community program using playwriting as a learning and outreach tool. “I came up with the idea to use writing to teach conflict resolution and dialogue for kids, so I wrote a proposal to go into community centers on Saturdays to teach playwriting,” she says.

Patricia Smith Melton, playwright and head of the MAF, liked Zacarias’ proposal enough to ask the playwright to return to D.C. to implement her brainchild in a real-world setting. In 1995, with Melton’s encouragement and funding from the MAF, Zacarias founded the Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT). Things went quickly after that. In four years of existence, YPT has provided more than 10,000 students with free playwriting workshops and opportunities to perform.

YPT’s staff has expanded from “one person borrowing a photocopier” to five full-time employees. “That’s a lot of growth in the last year,” says Zacarias. “The more successful I get as a playwright, the more people know about YPT, and at the same time there is a tension between them.”

The programs vary from afternoon monologue workshops at community centers and homeless shelters to intensive 12-week residencies at area high schools. After the students write their plays, each is read aloud. A cast of professional actors, recruited from open auditions, then performs the most developed works at the students’ schools, on tour at other area schools, or in multischool festivals. The plays are directed by big-name guests like Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, and Helen Hayes-nominated director Nick Olcott. The results are impressive, but that’s not the point—or at least not the most important one.

“When we go into the schools and teach playwriting as conflict resolution, a lot of times the student whose play is performed is a kid who is about to drop out of school. When we go and present the play at their school and the whole school gives them a standing ovation, there is nothing better,” Zacarias says. “When theater works, it can be communion.”

“I had one student who was 16 and still in middle school,” Zacarias recalls. “He had attention deficit disorder and was always getting in trouble. When his play was performed at Woolly Mammoth, 16 of his friends and relatives came. ‘This is the best day of my life,’ he said.” That her student might not continue his theatrical career doesn’t bother Zacarias. “Will he go on and become an award-winning playwright? I don’t think so,” she says. “But we’re not really about discovering the new Tennessee Williams; it is really about each kid finding their voice.”

YPT’s newest production, The Thirteenth Summer of William and Pilar, will be presented at GALA Hispanic Theatre in conjunction with the African Continuum Theatre Company Nov. 6 and 7. Zacarias and African Continuum’s producing artistic director, Jennifer Nelson, conceived the play to address the racial battles kids face in Mount Pleasant every day. “People always think of it as white vs. brown or white vs. black, but there’s so much more to it than that. [Mount Pleasant] is amazing because so many cultures live together in tolerance. But there is an undercurrent of tension,” says Zacarias, who lives in nearby Adams Morgan.

The play, about a Latina girl and an African-American boy whose friendship is caught in a racial crossfire, evolved from playwriting workshops with students at participating Mount Pleasant-area institutions, including the Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center and the Latin American Youth Center. “Last fall, I was teaching at 18 different places,” says Zacarias. “I get a lot of interesting exposure to a lot of different kids with a lot of different backgrounds, but it’s the same issues everywhere.”

By bringing playwriting and performing opportunities to kids who would otherwise have no theater experience, Zacarias figures, she helps them begin to see the world beyond the corners they live on. Students who have participated in the Mount Pleasant program since its inception have been rewarded with roles in the chorus of William and Pilar—not to mention a $3 stipend for each rehearsal they attend. Zacarias notes that the tiny stipend covers transportation costs, as well as giving the students a sense of professionalism. The students have clearly responded. Seventeen-year-old chorus member Barbara Choice never seriously considered theater until her involvement with William and Pilar. When Choice starts college in January, she plans to major in computer science, but, she suggests, “Theater is something I will do on the side.”

“Jennifer and I figured if we got 10 kids to stick with the program, that would be great. The fact that we’ve had 30 has been amazing. Everyone has treated the process really respectfully. It’s so fun to collaborate with the kids; I don’t feel that it’s my play. I may have written the skeleton, but the love, the muscle, and the skin are from the kids,” says Zacarias.

Born in Mexico in 1969, Zacarias abruptly moved to the U.S. a decade later when her father, a public health physician, began conducting research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She left nearly everything behind. Zacarias says her experience has been a “huge help” in terms of relating to her often alienated minority students—especially young Hispanic girls. “For a lot of kids, I’m their first Latina teacher,” she remarks.

And Zacarias points out that William and Pilar’s director, local actor and teacher KenYatta Rogers, is a positive role model for anybody paying attention—not just African-American kids. “KenYatta is a role model for me,” she says. “With an African-American man like KenYatta, kids can see someone who looks like them, and relate to him. YPT is a mentoring program by example.”

When Rogers first began working with Zacarias and Nelson, he was immediately struck by their passion for service. “They are people who I respect as artists, but they go one step further: They care. They care about where they live in a way that will live past them. They are visionary artists.” Rogers also believes that YPT is helping to create a space in kids’ minds in which the arts will grow. “They’d be home in front of Ricki Lake instead of being in front of a dialogue that will affect other people,” he says. “The very choice to come and listen—to dialogue about things that are sticky—to me, that’s half the battle.”

Sixteen-year-old chorus member Carlos Lemos agrees: “A lot of my friends were going to [be in William and Pilar], so I figured I might as well do it, too. It’s been great; I’ve learned new things. If I weren’t doing this, I’d probably be hanging with my friends. This gives me something to do on weeknights.”

But YPT isn’t a glorified baby sitter. The students in its programs are encouraged to tackle topics many adults shy away from. They write about issues that touch them daily: AIDS, teen pregnancy, and gang violence. And while getting the kids to talk about their concerns, Zacarias encourages using drama to realize how it feels to be somebody else. “Although I think it’s very important that kids reflect their reality, I also think it’s important for them to use their imagination,” she explains. “They’re told that having imagination isn’t adult. But a play is about playing. Writing is about transporting you to other worlds and living different lives,” she says. “We’re not coming in as art therapists.”

Zacarias is clearly just as proud that the YPT-developed William and Pilar will be performed at GALA as she is that George Mason’s Theater of the First Amendment has shelled out big bucks to produce her own The Sins of Sor Juana. But, just as William and Pilar belongs to the kids of Mount Pleasant, Sor Juana belongs to Zacarias. “Sor Juana really reflects who I am,” she says. “It is a historical play, but it is mainly fiction, because nobody knows about her. Everyone knows her in Mexico—but she’s really not known here.”

Born in 1648, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz rose from poverty to become a lady in Viceroy Marquis de Mancera’s court in Mexico City, gain notoriety as a writer, and then give it all up to enter a convent at age 18. Zacarias’ fascination with Sor Juana may have to do with their shared passion for the written word. “Sor Juana wrote a vow in blood never to write again,” says Zacarias, “and died soon after.”

As she talks about her love of writing, it’s clear that Zacarias would never give up her pen. But her ambitions are bigger than the writer’s room. “I would love to have an after-school arts center. The arts are not a strong part of the school curriculum here. The kids are so thirsty, and they run up to us and ask, ‘Where can we go to learn acting and writing?’ Within the next 10 years, I would love to have a building where kids can come and be safe and be occupied. They could take dance, acting, music, writing….It’s just raising the funds and finding a space. And of course, [YPT] would still go to the schools,” she says.

You’d think her success in the arts would overtake Zacarias’ broader ambitions for enrolling kids in it, but so far, her delicate balancing act remains aloft. CP