By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown News
“I came here to feel normal,” Danny laments as the audience of San Diego High School students watches him experience yet another instance of being othered while at the fictional high school he just transferred to in a play put on by Blindspot Collective.
“Danny’s Story” details the experiences of transphobia and eventual sexual assault of a trans high school student. Blindspot Collective created the piece and has taken it on two tours in San Diego high schools. Its latest tour finished with three shows at San Diego High School on Dec. 20. The play gives an intimate look at the struggles Danny, played by trans actor Jack Mason-Brase, faces after moving to San Diego to start over. In its efforts to build empathy, create accessible conversations for young people, and help high school students practice how to stand up for someone else, the second half of the presentation involves audience interaction with the six-person cast.
Wilfred Paloma’s joker, the MC and moderator in forum theater pieces, facilitates conversations with the high school students where they can discuss what motivated the characters and the different oppressions Danny faces.
“One thing I strive to bring to the room is whatever is said in the room, is whatever is said in the room. We’re going to acknowledge it and treat it with the same amount of weight as any other bit of the conversation,” Paloma said. “This is about the community and coming to where these folks are. This is the foundational thing that anchors me in the room.”
After the discussion, the performers run through several scenes again. This time, when something goes wrong, a volunteer from the audience steps in for an actor to try and write a better outcome for Danny. Often, the high school students transform Danny’s friend Gionni from a bystander into an advocate who stands up for Danny.
“The hardest part about playing this role is that she is intentionally a bystander,” Sofia Zaragoza, who originated the role of Gionni, explained. In real life, she hopes she would stand up for someone. “To me, it’s really empowering to get to be that person people want to step in for. I feel like I’ve seen every shade of response people can do — from the person who comes up dropping wisdom bombs cool and collectedly to the people who come up yelling and ready to fight. As extreme as I’ve seen some of the responses, more often than not, the things that I see inspire me to be a good friend in the face of oppression.”
In other places, the students practice how Danny could share his experiences with his family and friends so they can help him.
Paloma navigates these difficult conversations with finesse by carefully explaining that Danny is never at fault for being a victim but there are still ways in which he can use his power to stand up for himself. To emphasize that a victim is never to blame, the final scene of the sexual assault was not redone with students’ participation. The students’ goal was to use Gionni to stop the bully and perpetrator, Adam (Marc Caro-Willcox), before his behavior escalated to that level.
The piece of forum theater has helped students find tangible ways to recognize and combat transphobia and other forms of bullying. It also requires the largely LGBT+ performers relinquish control of their characters — and the conversation — to young people who may have never been exposed to this issue before.
“Every process is completely different depending on who’s in the room. What’s beautiful about the process is that we give it over to our audience. We say, ‘we’re gonna show you a piece.’ We don’t exactly know who they are — how supportive of the trans conversations they are, how curious, how judgmental, but we’re trusting them to bring their perceptions and questions,” said Catherine Hanna Schrock, “Danny’s Story” playwright and Blindspot Collective cofounder. “We’re illuminating an oppression we think is very important for people to be aware of.”
Zaragoza is proud to be in the play because this is the first time she has seen trans and nonbinary identities talked about in a way aimed at young people in San Diego, even though she grew up here. She has witnessed pushback from schools unsure about welcoming the piece onto their campuses, but students’ reactions to the shows have made her more committed to doing theater for social justice work.
“One of the most magical parts every day is seeing these young people come to the realization about these things in life, whether it’s LGBTQ+ rights, or sexual assault, or the other topics we bring up, but seeing them come to those realizations in real time makes it worth it,” Zaragoza said.
“Danny’s Story” is Blindspot Collective’s second school tour play since it was founded three years ago to bring theater of the oppressed and social justice theater to San Diego. Their first educational play, “Safa’s Story,” is about racism and immigration and is aimed at a primary school-age audience. Unlike “Safa’s Story,” which is based almost entirely on one student’s account, “Danny’s Story” was developed after a group of local LGBT+ high schoolers and young adults shared their stories over two days. After the listening session, Schrock took what she heard and developed a script that delved into some of the common experiences many of the participating trans youth shared.
“We started because we were interested in new work and new voices, and interested in theater at the intersection of social justice and artistic development. We are interested in topics and issues that are in the blindspot of society,” Schrock explained. “We show the impact of oppression is tragedy. Only we can then change that. We can change our own lives, we can change the lives of others.”
Blindspot Collective is currently developing a new piece of verbatim theater that will focus on the community in National City through interviews. Schrock hopes to open it this summer.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.