OAKLAND — In a new play about life in Oakland, teenagers and grandmothers, auto mechanics and teachers vent, reminisce and wax philosophical about the city.
Students from Oakland Technical High School wrote the hourlong drama, "Oakland Inside Out: Portrait of a City," which plays Thursday and Friday nights in the school auditorium.
It begins: "The fourth most dangerous city, but I call it my home."
If the play's rich monologues sound too authentic to have been written by a small group of novice, teenage playwrights, it's because they are based on real conversations. Last fall, under the guidance of performing arts director Jessa Brie Berkner, drama students with audio recorders interviewed Oakland residents of various stripes about their perceptions of the city — its crime, its schools, its socioeconomic divides and its mayor, among other themes.
"There's a lot of tension throughout the play," said Molly Katz, 17.
The idea was inspired by the work of Anna Deavere Smith, a well-known documentary-style playwright. One student went to a barber shop, another to a women's shelter, and another to a downtown art gallery. One interviewed her father, a janitor who has cleaned public school hallways for years. Another listened to stories from her grandmother, who used to work on the Oakland Army Base.
The students recorded their interviews so that they could observe the body language and tone of their subjects — and later embody them onstage.
"I guess you could say our goal is to bring all of Oakland to everyone," said Keyera Lucas-Evans, 15.
Oakland Tech is in North Oakland's Temescal neighborhood, but its students come from across the city. In fact, the actors represent the three main regions discussed and debated in the play: North, East and West. In 2006, Oakland Tech's PTA helped to revive the high school's defunct performing arts programs; this is Berkner's first advanced drama group.
"Every play has a story," Lucas-Evans said. "But what's so special about this one is it's a true story. We're getting real emotions."
The students said they were struck by two strong and seemingly contradictory sentiments, sometimes expressed in the same breath: hopelessness about the violence around them and faith in the city's potential. Most of their subjects said they loved Oakland despite their deep frustrations with it, the students said.
The play was written well before a BART police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III on Jan. 1, an incident that brought violent protests — and more notoriety — to Oakland. Interestingly enough, the students noted, one of the characters in the play rails against police shootings and talks about his distrust of the government.
Kenya Hall, 14, and Devon King, 17, said they hoped the audience would leave the show inspired to improve their city — and with a greater appreciation for the complexity of a place often described in simplistic terms.
"We want people to go home and say, 'We can work together as a community. We can build this city up again,'"" King said.
Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424.
"Oakland Inside Out" plays at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the auditorium of Oakland Technical High School at 42nd Street and Broadway. Admission is $8 at the door or $5 purchased in advance, either from the school's box office from 12:45 to 1:30 p.m. or from any advanced drama student. The Thursday performance is listed as "family-friendly." The Friday show contains explicit language.