Yizjuani Watson, 11, has help with her costume from Simya Gibson, 13, during a rehearsal on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at Rainier Beach high school in Seattle. 
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Yizjuani Watson, 11, has help with her costume from Simya Gibson, 13, during a rehearsal on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at Rainier Beach high school in Seattle.

PHOTOS: South Seattle students perform their own stories, not Broadway's

The end of the school year is a time for students to show off — debates, sports championships and performances abound. And for high schools around the state, it’s musical theater season.

At Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, drama students will present “Fiddler on the Roof.” You can catch a production of “The Wiz” at Franklin High School in Mt. Baker.

But you won’t find Broadway standards at Rainier Beach High School. The community-based Columbia City Youth Theater is taking over the RBHS performing arts center May 18th with “As Told By Us,” an evening of monologues, music and dance created by teen participants.

The material is sourced from the students’ lives, along with stories from community members.

Donte Felder, who leads Columbia City Youth Theater and teaches at Orca K-8 alternative school, is the driving force behind the production. He and two other adult mentors worked with the students to shape the individual monologues and the overall staging.

But Felder sees himself in a backseat role.

“The students are responsible for writing, directing and producing — the whole shebang,” Felder says. “Our job is to coach and guide them. Assist them in making quality decisions.”Read: Eat. Pray. Truck. How a Northwest tribe brings salmon home 

Felder is concentrating on the artistic content. And Intiman Theatre’s fledgling Starfish Project is providing a technical training program, in which students work on everything from scenic design to running the lights and sound system.

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The Western Washington Training Program pays for members of the IATSE union to mentor Starfish participants. IATSE represents stagehands and other backstage theater artists.

Mentor Tariq Sahali says he’s a product of mentorship himself, and he feels it’s important to pass on his skills to the next generation.

Intiman Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl piloted Starfish last year at Franklin High School. She wanted to create a path for students — particularly students of color — to learn about what goes on backstage, and to receive the kind of training that will pave the way to union-wage jobs.  

Intiman specifically wanted to identify youth of color for Starfish. Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl explains: "Producers call me and say, 'Who are the black lighting designers in town?' Well, we don't have any, because we didn't make any."  

Dance teacher and choreographer TiQuida Spellman’s students have been working with Columbia City Youth Theater for several years. Spellman, a former public school physical education teacher, hopes her young dancers are inspired to pursue college degrees. 

Seventeen-year-old Shayla Lockart, who performs a monologue about a teenage girl whose parents are behind bars, talks of personal and academic problems, of feeling lost and alienated. Felder tells her she needs to reach even deeper into her true emotions in order to touch the audience members.

Some of the monologues touch on racism or violence, but not all. Eighteen-year old Messiah Fagerholm’s monologue is about unrequited love.

“I don’t hate you,” he tells an unseen young woman. “I hate myself for not having the guts to tell you I love you.” 

Felder believes art saved his life when he was younger. In fifth grade, a teacher recognized his intellectual potential and pushed him to write a play.

“She said, ‘Donte, you’re a great storyteller,’" he remembers. "And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ She said, ‘Write this play.’"

Felder wrote the play and went on to earn an MFA in creative writing. Now, he wants to use his experience to help young people find their own paths.

"As Told By Us" runs Friday, May 18; Saturday, May 19; Friday, May 25 and Saturday, May 26 at Rainier Beach High School's performing arts center.

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