Nine months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus to a White passenger. She was 15. Youth Performance Company (YPC)’s “Inspired by Claudette & Rosa” explores the role each played in setting the stage for what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, while drawing directly from the experiences of today’s Black youth.
In the show, the “Liberation Players” are putting on a high school play and become challenged to do more than just retell past events. The result is a play that blends history and song with contemporary voices and humor to demonstrate the power of each individual to make a difference.
A collaborative effort that began last year with a script by playwright Laura Mann Hill, “Inspired” has been workshopped to include the voices of Twin Cities youth, a process that continued even as rehearsals began.
“I think it helps with the authenticity of the story that they’re telling, and they were genuinely inspired by Claudette and Rosa. So, it really was a mutual level of inspiration,” said Mann Hill. “It’s not even my story. I feel like there were so many people that have been part of this, and I’m just kind of weaving it together, like a quilt.”
YPC is located in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood (641 Fairview Ave. N.). Performances take place at The Conn Theatre (1900 Nicollet Ave.) in Minneapolis.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Before directing this show, Duck Washington directed “Periphery” at YPC, which was about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in. Both plays are about not just historical figures but historical youth who impacted their world and made a difference. For Washington, seeing youth get excited and passionate about making a positive change in the world – and inspiring courage and confidence in them to take action – is what makes it all worthwhile.
“In a place where things are happening in their community that seem impossible, like the Uprising in South Minneapolis and the loss of George Floyd, this kinda gives them an idea that they have the ability to impact it a little bit through their actions and their voices and that they’re not just helpless,” said Washington. “Claudette was 15 years old. The students in the lunch counter sit-ins were all in high school. But all of them moved the needle to make the world the place that it is today. And [today’s students] can do that [too]. They have the power, the capacity. If they have the will and the bravery, they can make change in this world.”
It is evident that this exchange between the adults and students involved at YPC is mutually beneficial.
“I learn things from them all the time,” said Erin Gustafson, who has been the stage manager for YPC performances since 2019. “I stand by that kids are the smartest humans in the world, and I will continuously be learning from them.”
Five “Inspired” cast members chatted before a January rehearsal about what theater, YPC and this show in particular mean to them. Here’s what they had to say:
Amele Brown, 18
First performance at age 4. Has done shows with YPC since age 11 or 12. Playing the roles of Rosa Parks and Annie from the Liberation Players. Helped workshop the play.
“We read through [the play] and talked with [the writer] about our experiences as Black youth and Minnesota and with George Floyd. I’m really into activism and I go to a lot of protests, so they wanted some of this generation’s input to make the show more current and relatable… It was super cool to be able to do that because I think it’s so important that we know adults who are creating these are listening to the kids, ‘cause that’s how you get that accuracy and that’s how you reach that audience and you make the difference.
“I think what this show does so well… is they kind of reflect on today’s Black youth as well as the history of Black activism and fighting for their rights… because they have that double-sided aspect, where it’s the high schoolers in the school making the play about the history. So honestly my character, I have so many similarities with her, at least the Annie one… Annie’s kind of my age, she’s applying for colleges which I just finished doing, she’s into acting, obviously she’s a Black little girl, so you know, I feel like this show has characters that kids like me will be able to relate to when they come and see it, as well as… pay homage to that history.”
Sha’Vontie Juneau, 12, Hope Academy
Began at YPC doing camps at age 6 or 7. First play in 3rd grade, played the title role in “The Velveteen Rabbit” in December. Playing Jean, a narrator, and a podcast host.
“I love it ‘cause I just love acting and being on stage and being able to connect with people. And just because it’s based on a true story with Black people and racism, our history, I just feel it really connects to me and my heritage and what my backstory is, so I just really love being part of these kind of things.
“I think [the show is] gonna be really great, and I just love being a part of plays because I love the cast and how we get to meet new people. I just feel like it’s a great experience for people who might not like… be around people, I feel like it’s a new experience, I feel like it’s really laid back and just like an opportunity to start [in theater].”
Luka McIlrath, 13, Capitol Hill Magnet School
Has done lights for YPC. First time acting on stage. Playing the role of Thomas.
“It’s definitely a new experience but it’s also quite a fun one to be honest, ‘cause I mean you get to meet all these new people from different areas with different experiences, and you all get to come together and make something amazing. And we can all work hard together and have fun. I mean, that’s the main thing.
“I’ve been doing lights with YPC for a bit now, and it just looked really fun. ‘Cause you get to see the whole cast have good bonds with each other and have fun while on stage and just show their excitement, ready for the whole audience to see. As a person who’s up in the booth all the time you get to see it, too. Also, I started theater doing lights specifically around this time last year, so it’s been almost a year where I’ve been actually involved in theater, and I just wanted to take part in a civil rights play that YPC does.
“Theater is an amazing way to get along with others and meet new people… anyone can get involved with theater.”
Ava O’Neal, 15, Roseville Area High School
First show at YPC. Playing the role of Sonia.
“I like that this show is really a discussion about social injustice and issues like that. A lot of the shows that I do in school, they’re not really as serious, they don’t delve into real topics like this, they’re more fantasy. I was really excited to start doing a show that talked about real issues. Also I liked that in this show it’s not just about social injustice, but it’s about people my age learning about it and learning how to deal with struggles surrounding it, and that was something that’s really important to me.
“Something I’ve learned from the show so far is that it’s okay to still be learning. Sometimes I feel a lot of pressure to have as much knowledge as possible on social issues, and while it is important to have knowledge and be educated on those things, this show is helping teach me that it’s okay to still be learning because we’re kind of always gonna be learning, and it’s okay to not know everything all the time.”
Layla Nerayo, Roseville Area High School
In theater since age 5. First show at YPC. Playing the roles of Claudette Colvin and Nyla.
“[Claudette] was a 15-year-old girl who had done essentially what Rosa Parks did about nine months prior. She held her seat on the bus refusing to give it up, but it was later decided that she wasn’t going to be the face of the bus boycott because of many reasons, one of which was colorism within the Black community, because she was darker skinned, and the other being she was young, she was a teenager. And people felt that the public would trust Rosa Parks more.
“I really did love learning more about her throughout the process of this show. A lot especially about Black history has come to light within the past few years, so I had heard about her but being able to really dive deeper and hear about what she did and why she did it was really interesting.
“I really love the fact that the show makes a beautiful effort to incorporate a majority of the history surrounding Claudette, so it’s not only her history with the bus boycott but with Rosa and with her struggles even within the Black community, which I think not enough people pay attention to.”
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