On May 13th, a group of talented and heroic Harlan County High School students staged a theatrical production in front of an auditorium full of their peers at the Harlan County High School auditorium. The play is called “Solving For X.” The students wrote the play out of their own experience and the experiences of their classmates. In addition to stories about the strength and power of friendship and family, and brilliant musical performances of songs that mean the most to the students, there were stories of date rape, abusive relationships, drug-addicted parents, unhappy foster families, and the tragedy that can result when adults fail to see young people whole. The process, which was a collaboration between the high school drama department and the Higher Ground community performance coalition, was a beautiful illustration of the capacity of young people to do serious, meaningful work if given the resources and the support to figure things out for themselves.
At the end of the performance, many of the performers were disappointed by scattered heckling that came from the crowd. Hopefully, a few unfortunate comments will not be what they remember about the performance. Because these memories of the day also endure: A group of high school students who in a few short weeks created a play from scratch about their own lives, and held the attention of a roomful of high school students for over an hour; students shushing each other in the audience, so that they could better hear what was going on on stage; laughter and tears that the players earned from their audience; the silence of the crowd during the most serious moments of the production, and their unrestrained laughter at the funniest moments; the heartfelt cheering for strong performances, and the gratitude expressed on the way out of the theater that comes from seeing one's own reality portrayed seriously on stage; experienced actors helping less experienced actors get their parts together; a technical crew working tirelessly behind the scenes to make the actors look good; teachers working together to make sure the students experienced success; musicians blending their talents with those of the actors; the work that went into getting the stories right; the students who filled in, often with very little chance to learn their new parts, when people could not make the performance; a supportive school administration, who made space in a crowded school schedule for the event. But above all, what should be remembered is a day to remind us all what art and theater are at their best: People performing for their own, taking their own experience and presenting it back to their whole community--the supportive and the unsupportive--and saying "We matter. What happens to us matters. And that in both pain and happiness, there is beauty, and that beauty grows when it is shared. And the bond that sharing creates can sustain us." The day should be remembered as a great day in American theater.