Alyssa Kardos felt a calling to make a meaningful contribution to society. Her mission brought her to South African shores, where she did just that.
Coming from the USA, I am no stranger to the violence that occurs in schools. With the recent violence in high schools in South Africa, it’s easy to point fingers and blame people. It is our systems that are at fault.
Young people join gangs because they promise them purpose and community. We need schools to provide students with meaningful outlets of expression and reflection to stop these recurring acts of violence.
For the past five weeks, I have been working in two high schools here in Soweto; St Martin De Porres High School and Progress Comprehensive High School. We met after school, two to five times a week, for between one and three-and-a-half hours. We talked about what social justice is, how it can be communicated through drama, and how it could be applied to the issues they face in their schools and community.
In my third year of high school, I decided not to pursue a career in acting, because I had a desire to make meaningful change in people’s lives and society. I didn’t feel as if I could do so through theatre.
In my fourth year, I was given a copy of Eve Ensler’s book, Emotional Creature. The book is about the different issues girls face around the world. That same year, alongside my high school drama teacher, I directed an adaption of Emotional Creature. I was amazed by how the audience was impacted by the stories they heard. We used the performances to raise money for girls to attend school through the nonprofit Room to Read.
After that performance, I wanted to know what would happen if other young people were able to express how they felt about the issues in their community. For a year, I let that question linger.
After the passing of my father, in the second year of university, I decided that it was time to get back to doing what I loved. I stayed up one night and drew up a plan of how I would teach social justice theatre. Two small problems arose for me. I had no idea where I would go or how I would pay for it.
As all good things begin, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a post to apply to the Social Innovation and Public Service Fund (SIPS) at Georgetown University for a grant that would enable me to realise my project. They helped me to resolve my quandary, by funding the project and expanded the scope of the project, suggesting that I try out my initiative in a setting abroad. Soweto, South Africa was to be the location for the project.
At Progress High School the core group I would work with comprised ten girls. Though we all spoke English, we quickly realised that for us to communicate effectively with one another, we all needed to slow down. I began to adapt my vocabulary: grade became year, grading turned into marking, bagel to burger, and streetlights to robots.
At first, we played simple acting games like Zip, Zap, Zop (a class favourite), “What are you doing?”, and “energy ball”. As they began to trust me and I them, I introduced the idea of social justice and its ability to highlight community issues.
For their first group project, they split into four groups and wrote short poems addressing the broad topics of gender, racism, poverty, and housing shortage. They performed the poems for the
Student 1: “Every year when it is election day, politicians promise us things such as…”
Student 2: “houses, roads, free education. Just for us to vote for their party. And we feel to them because as a politician you can’t go around promising people such things.”
Student 3: “But they don’t keep their promises. This really affects our life completely and in a very negative way.”
All: “Just for us to vote for them.”Shhh, don’t tell (2019)
For their final project, they had to choose a specific topic that affects their school community and write a short scene engaging that topic. They chose girls fighting over boys, teenage pregnancy, low self-esteem, and bullying.
I was surprised by the reflection that went into their scriptwriting. They dove into the feelings and explored the causes behind each of these topics.
On the last day of school, the girls performed their scenes for the school faculty. Though the drama club does not yet exist, I will be working remotely with the girls to continue the work we did. The Creative Arts teachers will also build some of these exercises into their curriculum.
Over at St Martin de Porres, the students performed Eve Ensler’s monologues, addressing the topics of fitting in, appearance and society’s expectations, adolescent suicide bombing and adolescent sexual assault. The students came to know the stories of their characters and their global familiarity, beyond the societies in which they are set.
Dear America, a poem by the group, expressed their thoughts about the shootings and the racism they hear about and how that affects their perception of the United States. The students with the support of the principal and their Creative Arts teacher, plan to continue a drama club where they could continue writing their own works.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked about whether I will return. I’m not sure if I will come back long term.
But on my last day at Progress, the principal said that the work the students did will spread. It gave the students the confidence to talk to others about the pieces they wrote, she expressed. That is my only hope as I board my return flight. Nelson Mandela’s own call to youth embodies this same hope.