Young Voices, not naive ones

The performers from last year’s Young Voices fest reflect their source material author’s age, 9th through 12th grade students from across Philadelphia..

– Photos Provided by Philadelphia Young Playwrights

In Maya Peniazek’s winning scene, “One Piece,” Cassidy and Beth square off in a high school bathroom. They’re both 17 and, while Cassidy is just trying to check her face for zits or adjusting her hair, Beth rambles on about every offensive and hot topic one could possibly include in a five-page scene: body image issues, poverty, promiscuity, LGBTQ sensitivity, refugees, feminism, and Black Lives Matter. It’s ambitious, and Peniazek talks about it with near-shocking grace and sophistication.

“I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to be a part of Philadelphia Young Playwrights,” the junior at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), 901 S. Broad St., said.

She is one of two South Philly-connected young writers whose work has been selected to be produced, directed and performed professionally as part of PYP’s annual Young Voices Monologue Festival.

Eighteen high school students, from across the city, have had their texts and scripts selected as the basis for this year’s festival, taking place today through March 19 at The Drake Hotel, 1512 Spruce St. From more than 400 submissions, which come as a result of myriad theater organizations sending teaching artists into area schools and PYP’s educational outreach efforts, only around 20 are selected. Peniazek is repping for CAPA as well as her 15th-and-Jackson-streets home. Southwest Philly resident Khristopher Jackson is the other South Philly connection – a South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., sophomore whose monologue, “Wondering Why?”, was also accepted.

Jackson left Southwest Philly for high school because he wanted a “better environment and it’s been pretty good.” He worked with PYP in Roberta Emmanuel’s English class and when his submission was accepted, he was floored.

“I was actually very surprised, I didn’t even know that many people entered the contest,” he said.

His submission is a reflection on his mother’s passing, from heart disease and a heart attack, a moment he’ll never forget.

“She passed on October 27th. When I was writing [“Wondering Why?”], it was kind of my like my last words for her because I couldn’t speak to her. At the time that it happened, it was so fast, I couldn’t really say what I wanted to say or how I felt,” he said. “I was there when it happened. That really changed me as a person. When I wrote it, I felt proud of myself.”

A PYP Monologue Festival press statement noted winners have, in the past, taken on topics like: “mental health, addiction, violence, racism, virginity, anxiety, PTSD, consumerism, and more.” It’s one of the most challenging aspects visiting teaching artists face – how to engage students meaningfully, often pulling out deeply personal and sensitive material, and then letting their peers hear and critique what they’ve written.

Steven Gravelle is completely aware of the challenge. The PYP resident teaching artist, educational coordinator for Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., and former Andrew Jackson School, 1213 S. 12th St., visiting teaching artist is also a new resident of Point Breeze.

“I do a total of 12 classes a week at 10 different schools,” he said, and one of them is at Southern.

“The students at South Philly High are living in sometimes-troubled circumstances,” he said delicately, not wanting to portray students as victims or fighters. “I feel that the work they do, giving them a voice and giving them a safe space, for self-expression is very important in their lives. Building communication skills as writers and performers but also as listeners, being able to listen to one another’s work and be able to respond to other student’s work is one of the cornerstones of what we do.”

Teaching artist Dwight Wilkins, a resident of the 2300 block of South Rosewood Street, has been in Emmanuel’s classroom, too, as a Theatre Exile teaching artist. He’s worked at Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary, 1901 S. 23rd St., as well and has helped produced the Young Voices festival for eight years now.

“It’s something I look forward to every year,” he said.

But this isn’t amateur hour. PYP pairs up each winning submission with a dramaturg, a director, and professional actors who’ve auditioned and invites these student writers to be an integral part of the month-long process of getting it to the stage. Public performances go up on March 10, 11, 18, and 19. Wilkins is regularly surprised by what teenagers will come up with.

“Sometimes they’ll surprise you. A [female student] wrote from an older man’s perspective who’d played in the Negro baseball leagues and was bitter about how he’d been treated,” he explained. “It’s always stuck with me, the story about a boy whose father died and the mother’s been grieving – the monologue’s about him trying to encourage his mother but also lashing out, frustrated, because she’s not pulling her weight.”

Imagine trying to cultivate that sensitivity with a mere 45 minutes to an hour per week. It’s a challenge Gravelle embraces as tantamount. Especially, as Wilkins described it, they used to have themes for the festivals, but most writers wanted to write only about their own lives. “It seems to me there’s no other place where someone says ‘Tell me your story and don’t hold back’ and that really resonates with this group of students,” Gravelle said. “What’s the most important story you can tell? What keeps you up at night? What are the conflicts you see in this world? I’m constantly surprised by the answers to those questions.”

Maya Peniazek’s one-act play gets right to it. While Beth digs herself deeper and further away from Cassidy’s graces, it’s a reflection of how Peniazek says many conversations can seem one-sided.

“Beth is supposed to be likeable to some degree, but she’s not,” Peniazek admitted. Her director “talked about how Beth wants to be friends with this black lesbian and these labels are important to her and she’s going to show this girl that she’s politically active and knows stuff but she’s going to suck at it.”

Furthermore, the creative writing and film major at CAPA says the issues of interest in “One Piece” aren’t as black and white as the larger rhetoric in popular American culture might have you believe.

“It’s become so much more than black and white – this piece isn’t about white people being stupid,” she said.

What does Peniazek see in her future? “I don’t really know – I just want to make things and write a lot and see where things go,” she confessed. As for Jackson, he has a similarly well-intentioned but unclear future. “I feel as though wherever life takes me, that’s where I need to be, as long as it’s not a bad path,” he said. Here’s hoping writing can take them both to great places.

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Maya Peniazek’s “One Piece” and Khristopher Jackson’s “Wondering Why?” will get professional production treatment thanks to a month-long rehearsal process preceding this week’s festival.

– Photos Provided by Philadelphia Young Playwrights