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Life Stages

T-Shirt Theatre teaches kids as much about life as about drama.


Roxanne Medeiros is only 14, but she's already watched cousins spend time in Juvenile Hall and friends turn to prostitution. Some are dead. Others have no place to go "because nobody wants them," she says.

Fifteen year-old Kristen Macadamia hasn't seen her father since she was 5. He's in jail.

Yet after noting their firm handshakes, luminous smiles and articulate answers, it's hard to believe that these Farrington High School students have any more troubles than their private-school counterparts from upper-middle-class East Honolulu homes.

The two are in Farrington's auditorium during their summer break, at a rehearsal for T-Shirt Theatre. "T-Shirt Theatre keeps me out of trouble," says Medeiros. She admits that she might have taken a very different path without it.

Celebrating its 20th year, T-Shirt Theatre of Kalihi is an inner-city theatre troupe for adolescents. Thirty-five Farrington High School students are selected through a rigorous audition process to write and perform original scenes as well as a repertoire of classic theatre in front of thousands of Honolulu students from third grade and above.

The theatre troupe operates under the umbrella of the Alliance for Drama Education, a nonprofit founded in 1980 by managing director George Kon and executive director Walt Dulaney. It's designed to reach out to the community and improve the lives of those who participate. Kon compares the theatre's repertoire to a lychee-rough on the outside, sweet inside. It's a message to avoid judgment based on race, appearance or socioeconomic status. "That's what we'd like the wider community to know, because most people are afraid of Kalihi kids," says Kon.

Photos: Katherine Nichols

"Being part of this gives you a whole feeling," says 14-year-old Brittany Saribay, who uses this as a way to connect with her father, a T-Shirt Theatre graduate. "It gives you joy, because you get to give back to the community. We're not just acting; we're sending out."

Kon calls the theatre's format "low tech, high zest." There's little need for costumes or sets or lighting. "We can make something up with just the T-Shirt on our back," explains assistant director Nate Corpuz. Dressed in baggy jeans slung low around his hips, a beanie with the brand name "Lost" pulled down on his forehead and piercings in his ears and tongue-Corpuz works with the cast, offering brisk suggestions to improve a skit about what it means to be a good audience.

"How do you listen with your eyes?" he says, placing his fingers on his temples and swinging his body to one side. Over and over, the students perfect the four or five lines of the scene, projecting their voices, kicking up their energy levels, moving like dancers. "Good," Corpuz finally nods his approval. "That's goin' catch 'em."

At 20, Corpuz is part of the legacy. Now attending Honolulu Community College, he returns to Farrington several days a week to work with students as one of six assistant directors.

T-Shirt Theatre changed his life. A self-described rascal who was constantly sent out of the classroom in high school, he found the theatre troupe a haven, a way to release energy. After his successful audition, "a lot of things turned around," he recalls. He learned how to deal with people. He began to understand friendships and how those can evolve into family.

Earning a slot as an assistant director gave him even more confidence. "This is a big, big stepping stone. It made me not afraid to try things. It gives me sense of hope that anything I do, I will come out on top."

Kon calls it "rehearsing for life." Corpuz nods in agreement. He offers endless praise for Dulaney and for Kon, a veteran whose passion for his work seems as ardent as a newcomer's. "A lot of times we don't thank the teachers," says Corpuz. "They deserve a lot of credit. I've come here with a lot on my back, a lot of stress, a lot of drama. They take off part of that weight."

It's not just therapy. Participants have to work hard and risk much to make the cut and stay the course. Both Macadamia and Saribay failed in their first attempts; every year some 40 youngsters are turned away. Kon encouraged them to audition again the following year. Their subsequent success became a lifelong lesson about resiliency and perseverance.

All agree their schoolwork has improved: If their grade-point average drops below 2.0, they can rehearse but not perform. Is that punishment? "Yes!" they chime. They don't want their labor-writing and developing scenes and months of rehearsals-to go to waste. They want people to see it.

Rehearsal is over now. But the students don't scatter. There is a formal open and close to each session. Everyone gathers on stage in a circle, where they debrief before performing breathing exercises that help them "leave the bad outside," says Saribay. Kon asks for volunteers to talk about dilemmas they solved. One boy mentions his frustration with a "fan problem."

"Did you get angry?" asks Kon.


"When you got angry, did you express that anger?"

"No." Applause and a few cheers rise from the group. It's all part of what Corpuz calls understanding "proper moments" to express yourself, and appropriate ways to do that. Storming out or quitting when tensions rise is not tolerated.

"When I criticize them, they want to give it back to me," says Kon, a Baldwin High School graduate with a deep understanding of local culture. "But they deal with it. They don't practice 'I'm sorry' at home, so they need to have a chance to actually use those words."

Many are attracted because of the adrenaline rush they get from the danger of performing, admits Kon, who taught experimental theatre at New York University before returning to Hawai'i. "It's a very fine line that they're walking. If there wasn't that big risk, they wouldn't be attracted to it."

If risk lures them, the rewards make them stay. "It changed me and the way people look at me," says T-Shirt Theatre veteran and assistant director Eric Patague. "We become close together, like family. That's how we keep ourselves off the streets and from doing bad things." Now at Leeward Community College, the 19-year-old is contemplating writing or directing after college.

Sometimes the players do Shakespeare or dramatize the Bill of Rights. Other times they write their own scenes about respect, friendship, racial and socioeconomic assumptions. Even personal tragedies can be transformed into powerful material and, eventually, life lessons. "Everybody has a story," says Kon, "and that's what we celebrate."


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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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