OAKLAND -- Voices can taunt, tackle, terrorize or triumphantly declare truth.
A revival of a 2011 award-winning production, presented by the drama department at Bishop O'Dowd High School theater on Feb. 10, did it all in under 15 minutes, with the one-act, student-written play, "Voices."
Springing to life from its origin as a collaborative project developed by drama teacher Trina Oliver and O'Dowd alumni Will McAneny (2011) and Hayley Jackson (2012), the school presentation bristled and shined. Having lost none of the luster that earned the two student writers-directors a special Judges Award and the Ohlone College Theater Festival's Best One Act award three years ago, the raw, rigorous script screamed for attention.
Filing in to sit like competitors in a popularity contest -- or human ducks in a bullying gallery, we soon learned -- the 13-member cast sat on purple cubes. Overhead spotlights illuminated solo or duet storytellers, who stood in simple columns of white light and shared dark stories colored with anguish, loss and love.
"We no longer need a face to have a voice," the first solo actor said. "You just type hurtful, awful things. Then you move on."
Behind her, the ensemble whispered slanderous commentary, rising to criss-cross the stage and chant, "Hideous, disgusting, slut, trash ... you're pathetic."
Two teens preened while recalling nasty, commonplace internet tales. Their language was even melodramatic at times. But then, a male actor spoke quietly: "No counselor would ever ask a gay student, 'Are you all right?' The answer is always, 'No.'" He moved behind the line of boxes and bullies, who stared dispassionately throughout his declaration. "Gay, queer, homo ..." they taunted, slaying him with words and causing him to fall prone to the floor.
"Voices" gathered the gay-bashing, cyberbullying firepower of the 21st century teen experience, added a slider of parental, educator and societal pressure, and dished out its searing message. That it accomplished all of this with minimal lighting, a sparse, well-crafted script based on true O'Dowd stories and the pure, breathtaking beauty of young actors speaking mostly to the fourth wall, was honestly, surprising. And impressive.
It would have been enough to simply offer the presentation, accept applause, and call it a day well spent. But Oliver and Assistant Principal Kevin Cushing were more ambitious. "Voices" was packaged with a "talk back," and preceded by information Cushing shared with the students about core values and perceptions surrounding bullying.
Feedback following the play supported one student's assertion that "where we live is more accepting than some places in the country." Sharing stories -- of bullying, thoughts of suicide, hesitancy to speak out until moved by the play to do so -- the courageous speakers were greeted by their peers' applause. Oliver, choking with emotion at hearing the play's retold stories as if for the first time, said, "Theater teaches, educates and motivates people. It hits you."
Principal Pamela Shay said the school is committed to maintaining an open dialogue with students. She and Cushing are considering opportunities to carry the "Voices" production to Bay Area high schools and universities. As a first step, an evening performance open to the public was held on Feb. 11.