DeSMET, Idaho – Words can transform.
The words of 13-year-old Jay Peone turned a professional actor into a football and another into a basketball.
Bouncing on their chairs, the actors portrayed the balls discussing their friendship, their worries and their dreams, while Jay watched from the side, grinning every time the audience laughed.
And in turn, the actors hoped that they, too, helped transform Jay in a positive way through the Young Native Playwrights Program, brought to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School by the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
“It just lights them up inside,” said Delanna Studi, one of the Native American actor-mentors involved in the project. “In L.A., the parts that come your way are never what you want. This is the most rewarding acting I’ve ever done.”
Eight one-act plays written by tribal students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades are being performed this week and next by the six actors from Los Angeles, including public performances Sunday and Monday at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, and at North Idaho College.
And these actors are no amateurs.
For instance, Studi’s recent work includes a part in Chris Eyer’s film “Edge of America,” which opened the Sundance Film Festival; Kalani Queypo appeared in Steven Spielberg’s miniseries, “Into the West,” and is starring in the soon-to-premiere film, “The New World;” and Andrew Roa has had extensive experience in theater, film and television, working with Kiefer Sutherland and Woody Allen, among other stars.
“We’re treating this as a professionally staged reading,” said project director Tom Kellogg, who had the kids rehearsing their bows shortly before their plays were read Wednesday afternoon to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School. “We want them to see that their words are honored.”
Prior to now, the Young Native Playwrights Program has never been outside Los Angeles. But Kellogg, who grew up in Post Falls, has wanted to bring the mentoring program to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. And when Coeur d’Alene tribal member Jeanne Givens joined the Autry Stewardship Council, she soon got behind the idea.
Kellogg said he hopes the Autry National Center, which is devoted to preserving the diverse cultures of the American West, will take the mentoring program to other rural Indian tribes, too.
The actors arrived earlier this week to perform the readings, but the project began nearly three weeks ago when mentors from the University of Idaho came to the tribal school to work with students one-on-one in workshops led by Kellogg.
The students, with the encouragement and technical help from their mentors, wrote scripts using animals or objects as characters over the course of two weeks.
“If it’s about Teddy bears or a washer and dryer having a conversation, then the kids don’t think, ‘This is about me,’ ” said Sally Eames-Harlan, a mentor who recently received her master’s in fine arts for performance at UI. “They can risk a little bit more.”
She and others said they could see a change in the students in those two weeks of intensive writing.
“I loved watching them open up more and more every day,” Eames-Harlan said.
Jay said he wasn’t too excited about the project when he first heard about it; “At first, I thought it would be kind of boring.”
But then, he said, “we started getting into it and I thought it was pretty cool.”
Givens hopes that the experience will inspire some students to continue with their writing.
“I hope we get our own version of Ernest Hemingway, and more Sherman Alexies and N. Scott Momadays (the only Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize),” Givens said. “The plays are fun, but at the root of it is taking command of the writing process.”
Studi hopes the students will dare to dream big, like she did. She said other folks in her small Oklahoma hometown thought her plans of becoming an actor were crazy.
“When you’re in a small-town environment, some find it hard to see outside that area,” she said.
Jay, who wears too-big jeans and a Tupac Shakur T-shirt, chose basketball as his theme because he loves the game and plays on the school team.
Opening night of the readings at UI’s Hartung Theatre drew a large, enthusiastic crowd on Monday, Studi said. At each performance, the student playwrights sit on the stage with the actors, so they can watch the performance and see the audience reaction. Jay’s fists shot up in victory after his play was read Monday, Studi said.
But at the next reading, the next day, at Plummer Middle School, Jay covered his ears and was so nervous he could hardly watch or listen, as if fearing his peers’ reaction in the audience, Studi said.
“Did you hear the laughter?” Studi said she asked him afterward.
On Wednesday, Jay was more relaxed, and watched intently as Queypo and Roa threw themselves into their roles – an insecure, undersized football and a basketball that misses its mother, a championship ball that’s always on the road.
“She’s a championship basketball, and I’m just a plain, ordinary ball,” Roa read sorrowfully from Jay’s script.
After the play’s happy ending, Roa and Queypo stepped apart, making room for Jay between them, and they all took a bow together.
Then Jay stepped forward, spread his hands to the audience and took a satisfied bow of his own.