Youth theater can be difficult to appreciate. The low-budget sets and costumes, the lack of experience, the simple plots — we’ve all been there.
Often, what makes a high school production shine is the spirit of the actors themselves. If they enjoy what they’re doing, the audience does, too.
That was definitely true of ASU Preparatory Academy’s production of the musical “In and Out of Shadows,” but there’s more to it than that. Many of the student actors related to the storyline, which depicts the struggles of undocumented students who have immigrated to California from Mexico and Asia.
One of the reasons the students enjoy being on stage so much was that this is a new experience for them. This is ASU Prep’s first ever theater production put on by its first ever drama class. The class was so popular this year that the teacher, Andrea Enger, is being brought on to teach drama full-time next year.
The students also appreciated the transformative power of theater. One actor told me about how his character has two sides — there’s the respectful momma’s boy, and then there’s the tough, cool teen. Playing this character allowed him to express himself more and be less shy, even offstage.
Another student is undocumented. He had a lot of experiences in common between his own life and that of the character he portrayed on the stage. Being able to share his story with his classmates and the audience was cathartic, he said.
But even without that background, the production was good. It had its little flaws — it was difficult to hear the solo singers sometimes, the set changes were constant and a little tedious, there was a clear range of acting ability. But those are small details, and the big-picture things — generally solid acting, strong writing and pace, a clear message — were all present.
The play was written by famous poet and young adult author Gary Soto at the request of a San Francisco theater director. He went through extensive research and 37 drafts in order to properly capture the controversial topic and unique youth stories.
Although many of the characters are Mexican-American, the play also features characters of other races, such as a Filipino family and a Chinese-American student. The actors tried to represent this diversity by matching themselves to characters with similar backgrounds.
In plays that are also musicals, the songs tend to make it or break it. Although simple, the seven songs of “In & Out of Shadows” were all strong and integrated well with the story.
My favorites were “Camilla,” performed by Nieves Noriega, who played the character Juan Two, and “Clouds,” featuring the Filipino mother, played by Alina Cao. Noriega and Cao are both strong singers; in addition to demonstrating vocal talent, both were able to command the stage and project their voice and emotions.
The group ensemble songs were also good and featured simple dance choreography as well. They highlighted key plot points and themes.
Juan Two was also my favorite character in the play. He was the comic relief in both solo and group scenes but also a source of strong emotion, such as when he got his papers after years of living undocumented.
Noriega gave off a strong sense of charisma and confidence that suggests previous acting experience; either way, Juan Two was immediately likable and, I expect, very relatable for most teens. Soto did a great job painting an accurate picture of teenagers in both their day-to-day lives and in their struggles with documentation.
Although “In & Out of Shadows” only ran for one weekend, stay tuned for more theater offerings from ASU Prep. Expect to see another production before the end of the semester, as well as several more plays in the fall.