by Sharon H. Chang
The house lights go down. Three young dancers in ripped white t-shirts and iridescent gold boots stride on stage. Beyoncé’s “Freedom” starts to play. The dancers move, gesture, stomp. More dancers join them and the dance gets fiercer, stronger, bolder. “I’m keep running,” sings out Beyoncé, “cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” Then–gunshots ring out and all the dancers drop to the floor, dead.
Welcome to The Defiance, an outstanding student play about a near future dystopia where the arts are illegal and punishable by death. Brainwashed citizens are identified by numbers (names are forbidden) and ruled over by a totalitarian High Chancellor who demands allegiance a la Hitler. But there is a growing rebellion of artists and creative spirits: citizens who still write, paint, dance, sing songs like Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and recite poetry like Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” And the revolution is coming.
The play, exploring themes of social justice and education through the arts, was written by Orca K-8 middle schoolers a few years ago under the mentorship of director and educator Donte Felder. Their inspiration? When two students were forced to drop Felder’s drama class and take extra math after performing below standard on a math assessment. Both students were eventually allowed back into the elective. But it got the entire club discussing their frustrations as youth artists in the public school system which led to penning The Defiance. “The story is about their experience in Seattle Public Schools,” explains Felder, “and how they’re being treated as numbers.”
The Defiance makes it very clear where its progenitors stand. A repressive classroom is a main setting, standardized testing is a strategy of the High Chancellor’s oppression, and revolutionary characters routinely deliver lines like “you teach words that rot your students’ souls” and “they murdered all of us when they killed creativity in our schools.” Students also make it abundantly clear, as the play’s title indicates, that they will fight back with rebel characters proclaiming, “I can’t stop being me,” “you can’t break me,” and “art is freedom.”
Felder is incredibly proud of his mentees taking a stand at a time where overtesting in U.S. public schools has led to teaching that devalues creativity while over-emphasizing rote memorization. “Are we metaphorically killing our kids,” he asks, “with this manufactured curriculum that doesn’t get to the depth of who they are?”
The first production of The Defiance was put on by the Orca Drama Club two years ago at Rainier Beach High School. “It was a thing of beauty,” says Felder. But the story did not end there. Between that time and now much would happen. The drama club lost all its funding, Felder’s youngest daughter Alexia tragically died during childbirth, the country’s first African American president stepped down, and a highly charged presidential campaign resulted in the election of controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Losing a child has been one of the most traumatic events Felder has ever endured. To help deal with the loss and pain he dove head-first into creative work. “With loss you find new beginnings, new story,” Felder now says. Alexia is listed in the play’s program acknowledgements and Felder feels she has watched over all of them and helped them find success.
Felder morphed his drama club into the Columbia City Youth Theater Group, drawing youth members from the whole city and bringing it to the larger community for support, fundraising and other help. Then, “Last summer I was meeting with some of the students about what’s next,” Felder describes. “They said, ‘I think we need to re-tell The Defiance story.'” He entirely agreed.
The Columbia City Youth Theater Group was awarded a $25,000 City of Seattle Neighborhood Matching Grant that allowed them to not only revive The Defiance but also host a social justice conference last month and fund publication of a gorgeous graphic novel of their play illustrated by student Ethan Dyer. The Defiance graphic novel is handed out for free after every performance.
The Defiance is now in its second production with sold-out performances at the Seattle Repertory Theater last weekend and more performances upcoming at Rainier Beach High School this weekend. Ten students from the original cast had their hands on this new production.
Showcasing a wide range of youth talent, the play is smart, certainly beautiful, at times funny, but especially scathing in its political commentary. The script was updated to address student concerns about the new administration. And again, their position is clear. When the High Chancellor’s legions declare “he has made America great again” and the resistance pushes back against “a government with a genocidal appetite for its creative community” — we know exactly who and what the students are admonishing.
The play is still so relevant, significant, and needed, says Felder. Particularly in these times. “We are under attack; funding is under attack,” says Felder, “and if we don’t stand up who is?”
Donte Felder is himself an artist and storyteller. He holds an M.F.A. in creative writing with a focus on screenplay. He lives in South Park with his wife and nine-year-old daughter. He also has two adopted sons who are grown and moved out. He was one of six writers that collaborated on The Mis-Education of the Well Meaning Liberal which was performed at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center last year. Felder has taught at Orca for eighteen years and was just promoted to head teacher.
Felder’s next project with youth is a film about the education system through the lens of slam poets. He is also working on Blerds, Comics and Cafe–a “super esoteric, super silly and super inappropriate” script about Black nerds discussing Black Lives Matter and many other events of these troubled times. “It’s catharsis,” he says of writing and creating.
As The Defiance director Felder remains blown away by the catharsis of the play’s current cast and crew who rehearsed for many hours often taking work home with them. The youth involved are simply brilliant, Felder relays, and every day of rehearsal “there’s some type of real discussion that’s happening.” All the students are artists, Felder reminds, and so The Defiance resonates on a personal level “because that’s who they are, they walk the talk.”
In fact, Felder says he was in tears Friday evening at Seattle Repertory when original cast member Ramona Tellez (playing “Clare”) delivered her emotional final lines. “It’s a heavy but hopeful play,” he describes, “something that you have to process.”
This week Columbia City Youth Theatre are taking it back home. The Defiance has two more performances on its original stage at Rainier Beach High School, Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center. The performances are Friday and Saturday evening and tickets are free. When asked if he wants to add anything, Felder laughs out loud, “Arts. That’s all I have to say.” But in the words of his students and their play, The Defiance, it seems important to also add: “Wake up. Claim your humanity . . . It’s a good day for a revolution.”
Sharon H. Chang is an award-winning author, scholar, and activist who focuses on racism, social justice and the Asian American diaspora with a feminist lens. Her inaugural book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World was released in 2015 to very positive reviews. Some of her short-form pieces have appeared in BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, The Seattle Globalist, AAPI Voices and The International Examiner. In 2015 Sharon was named Social Justice Commentator of the Year by The Seattle Globalist.
Featured image: Left to Right: Katera Howard (junior at Rainier Beach High School) playing “SK6235 / Kristen,” and Annabelle Russell (8th Grader at Orca K-8) playing “SB6299 / Blossom”. Photo by Andrea J. Walker