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Generation NYZ is having an encore run from January 24 to February 3, 2019 at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre.
NYC youths share their lives in the latest edition of Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ
Would you have the courage to get up and talk about your life in front of an audience of strangers? No character to protect you, no fourth wall to hide behind. Just a microphone, a music stand, and your no-holds-barred truth. That's what seven New York City youths are doing in the 25th anniversary installment of Ping Chong + Company's Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ, currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Since 1992, this unique documentary-theatre series has examined more than 50 different "outsider" groups -- including Muslims, the disabled, refugees, sexual abuse survivors, LGBTQ youth -- by having community members share their stories onstage. Applicants for each edition go through a rigorous interview process and, eventually, a cast is assembled and a script is written collaboratively with oversight from Ping Chong pros. Since the participants aren't performers, they sit and read their own words, which are blunt, raw, and real.
The New Victory Theater, which specializes in theatre for family audiences, actually commissioned this edition of Undesirable Elements. "They wanted to do a show that featured voices of young New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds," explains Ping Chong associate director Sara Zatz. While that's an incredibly broad theme, after months of outreach and interviews, they settled on seven city youths ages 18 to 22 whose stories touch on a dizzying array of issues, including foster care, child abuse, homelessness, racism, violence, depression, DACA, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Even though all of the participants approved of the final script, during a roundtable discussion, a few still expressed trepidation about revealing such personal information. "I was like perpetually terrified, and still am kind of scared about how people are going to react," says Syl Egerton, who's gender nonconforming. "I worry how people are going to be like, 'You don't look trans' or whatever."
"I don't like other people to be in my business," says Rafael Rosario, who lived in shelters with his family. "It took me four years to tell my best friend about what I had been through! But then reflecting on it, I was like, this is going to be really good for other young people going through the same things."
"My dad is one of those people who says, 'If you tell everyone your business it's not your business no more,'" says Porscha Polkahantis Rippy, who spent time in foster care. "So first off, I was like, what if my dad's upset? But you know, it's my story."
"Me personally going into this, I didn't really think I had a story to tell," admits De-Andra Pryce, a young gay woman who grew up in a very Christian family. "I was closeted for a long time, trying to be myself internally but not telling everybody. After I came out I was like, now I really don't care what anyone thinks. I'm still waving my gay flag!"
The 70-minute show deftly interweaves their stories, almost like a fugue. Snippets of formative memories paint impressionistic portraits of each cast member. Even though you never know who will speak next, it's not confusing. Anecdotes are arranged chronologically, and the participants frequently reestablish the timeline by yelling out the year.
Some cast members won't just be divulging their secrets to strangers. A few admitted that their own families will be hearing certain revelations for the first time. "I talk about a lot of intimate things like depression, contemplating suicide, and having a girlfriend," says Mohammad Murtaza. "My parents don't know about any of that. They're literally going to find out about it when they come to the show. I don't know what the conversation is going to be like after that."
Monica Victoria Tatacoya Castañeda, a Dreamer with progressive politics, concurs. "I describe myself as the black sheep of my family because I'm Christian. But I'm not like those really crazy conservative Christians which make up most of my family. So there's a very big chance of backlash there. I don't want them to be mad, especially my mother. But there has to be a point where they have to understand. And maybe if I say it like this, it will help."
Although the stories are as disparate as the participants, there's one thing the entire cast agrees on: Their words will resonate with young audiences and provide comfort to adolescents struggling with similar issues.
"I want the kids or anybody who dealt with any of our experiences to do better than what we did, if that makes sense," says Edwin Aguila. "I feel like I could have avoided a lot of detentions, a lot of suspensions, a lot of close-to expulsions because of the stupid things that I did. I want them to find a better way to express themselves."
"I want them to know that their stories and their life experiences are their weapons," adds Murtaza. "You find yourself in your lowest moments and I feel that's kind of what we did. That's why we're on this stage."
Top image: Porscha Polkahantis Rippy and Edwin Aguila in Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ. Photos by Alexis Buatti-Ramos.