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Youtheatre takes a risk with Keesha's House
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
In its 80 years of existence, the Fort Wayne Youtheatre has done just about every type of play imaginable — musicals, fantasies, original dramas, pageants… the list is practically endless. It’s the classics like Wizard of Oz and The Velveteen Rabbit that audiences flock to, but the organization has done some more dramatic fare, too. With Keesha’s House, Youtheatre expands its dramatic repertoire even further.
Keesha’s House was adapted from an award-winning young adult novel by local author Helen Frost. The story centers around seven teenagers and the problems that they face. Stephie is pregnant; Jason is her boyfriend, a high school basketball star torn between his responsibility towards Stephie and the promise of a college basketball career. There’s also Dontay, living in a succession of foster homes while his parents are in jail; Carmen, who winds up in a juvenile detention center after being arrested on a DUI; Harris, kicked out of his home after revealing he is gay; and Katie, trying to escape an abusive and controlling stepfather. Keesha’s house becomes a sanctuary for the characters as they try to work through their problems.
Frost’s novel, which won the Michael J Printz Award for excellence in Young Adult Literature, is told in a series of monologues by the characters. Frost says that turning these solo voices into scenes and dialogue was one of the challenges she and Youtheatre director Harvey Cocks faced when bringing the story to the stage.
Frost and Cocks had previously collaborated on a play called Why Darkness Seems So Light, a piece Frost says was inspired by her work with young people in a violence-prevention program. The story of Keesha’s House had similar origins. “ After hearing so many of those stories, it made me want to make something coherent out of it, because with so many of the kids, I would just hear these little fragments and I would never know what happened or how the stories related to each other,” says Frost. “Putting the kid’s stories together allowed me to give some structure to their lives. I always wanted those kids that I knew to be in a safe place and so Keesha’s House is a way of creating a safe place.”
Keesha’s House is a far, far less grim story than Why Darkness Seems So Light. In fact, though some of the subject matter may sound heavy, Keesha’s House is actually very hopeful and optimistic. These are essentially good kids going through a very bad time. They care about each other, and they are anxious to do the right thing. “I wanted it to be about kids helping each other,” says Frost. “I see that with real kids too, how they offer each other a lot of support as they go through those teenage years. They’re finding friends and helping each other.”
Many of the adult characters are more sympathetic than one might expect in such a “kid-centric” story. Most of the parents and authority figures, such as the judge who hears Carmen’s case or Jason’s coach, are concerned and eager to help, though sometimes they might not know quite what to do.
Harvey Cocks agrees that Keesha’s House is a positive story; the overall feeling is that the characters are going to work through their problems. But he does concede that this play is a little different than others Youtheatre has performed in his 26-year stint as director. They’re recommending the performance for ages 12 and up. “Audiences love the classics like The Wizard of Oz and Snow White,” says Cocks. “Those are wonderful plays, and we love doing those. We’ve also done more dramatic plays, but Keesha’s House is probably the most outspoken and dramatic play we’ve done. It’s a test run.”
One audience that appreciates Youtheatre’s foray into more dramatic territory is the cast of Kessha’s House. Some cast members have several Youtheatre productions under their belts; others are newcomers with school plays on their resume. All of the actors praise the play’s dialogue in particular (Frost says she got help from teenage consultants who read early drafts of the novel) and welcome the chance to tackle the realistic elements of the story. “I like it because it’s not a fantasy,” says Victor Torres, who plays Harris and has acted in several Youtheater plays. “It’s different. It makes it more interesting to play this character.” Many of the actors say that they drew inspiration for their character from real life experience. “When I read the book, I thought of some people I know that are going through some of the things the characters are going through,” says Simone Mudd, who plays Keesha.
If the cast is enthusiastic about the material, Cocks is just as enthusiastic about the cast. “The wonderful thing about them is they care about the play, they care about the characters,” he says. “Support is an important thing when it comes to acting, and they’ve done that. They seem to really meld and mesh, and that’s wonderful for the play.”