The 27 actors in the OakTech Rep's spring play are hard at work rehearsing "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose."
"All right! We really tore through Manzanar last time," director Jessa Brie Moreno calls out to the cast. "I'm really proud of you guys. We're doing great."
The tragicomic musical, developed by Richard Montoya of the Chicano performance troupe Culture Clash, portrays a Mexican immigrant who falls asleep as he studies for his U.S. citizenship exam. In his dreams, he meets a slew of historical figures -- from Sacagawea to Jackie Robinson -- and travels to some of the darkest corners of America's past.
The performance, held May 1-3 at Oakland Technical High School, includes 78 characters, several musical numbers, elaborate sets and choreographed dances.
Kevin Covarrubias, who plays the lead in "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose," practices his lines with fellow performer Jessica Nguyen.
"I don’t really like how we get called high school theater," says senior Jacob Moore, who has performed in five plays at Oakland Tech. He has two roles this spring: Jesus and a Japanese game show host. He's also in charge of costumes. "We do productions. That’s like one thing, ever since the first show we did, I was like, 'Just a high school play? No! This is a lot!' "
"It’s challenging material," agrees Jessa Brie Moreno, who came to Oakland Technical High School as a drama teacher eight years ago. "We’re often putting the PG-13 rating on our posters. Because that’s who these students are and what they’re really dealing with."
When Moreno arrived at Oakland Tech, the school’s 900-seat auditorium was being used for storage. The building had a leaky roof and broken seats, and there was no performing arts program to speak of. Even today, Moreno says, only about a third of students at Oakland's public schools have access to any kind of arts education.
But Moreno is helping to change that. A few years ago, the American High School Theatre Festival named the OakTech Rep one of the top 50 drama programs in the country. Moreno and her students traveled to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland -- the largest arts festival in the world -- to perform "Hamlet: Blood in the Brain," an adaptation of the Shakespeare classic set in 1980s Oakland. And the troupe routinely earns high praise from professional actors and directors.
"You don’t go in with the expectation that these young guys are going to do what they do," says Michael Torres, chair of the theater department at Oakland's Laney College. He's been a professional stage actor for the past 26 years and works with some of Moreno's former students. "I like watching the shows because I can hold onto the through line. It’s like watching a show in many other different places that are professional. It’s special, what’s happening there," at Oakland Tech, he says. "It’s not normal."
The play features several choreographed dances. Here, students rehearse a medley that blends "Ice Ice Baby" with "Electric Slide."
Moreno often brings in local professionals to help coach the students --actors, directors, choreographers. The group frequently writes its own work, too, such as "99 Years," a play about the history of Oakland Tech, based on interviews with alumni. Moreno thinks of this as a pre-professional program, and makes sure that each performance presents new challenges and takes new risks.
"I keep saying, this is the one that's going to get me fired," she says, laughing. "No, this is the one! But it hasn't happened yet."
That’s probably because the program has been so successful -- and not only at Oakland Tech. A few years ago, when Moreno was one of the only drama teachers left in the district, she wrote a grant to train 10 English and history teachers in theater techniques and what she calls "creative inquiry." Known as the Oakland Theatre Arts Initiative, the grant helped integrate theater arts into a handful of classrooms and build the drama program at Edna Brewer Middle School.
"They say that creative thought and critical thinking skills are the most lacking right now in education," Moreno says. "And I think theater is a place where that all comes together and you can make use of it."
The cast practices their rendition of the Neil Diamond classic, "Coming to America."
Now Moreno spends each morning at the Oakland Unified School District office developing curricula that will bring theater techniques into every classroom in the district. For some students, like Jacob Moore, that kind of opportunity is everything.
"Before I lived here, when I didn’t have theater, my GPA was below a 1," says Moore. "Then I got into reading and working and learning. That’s what you have to do to be in theater; you have to learn a lot about everything in the play. So I just kinda got into doing work. And now I’m like a 3.5 GPA, which is really weird for me, because that’s never happened before!"
Senior Ana Ortiz has been acting for the past two years, and she says theater has been pretty transformative for her, too.
"When I talk in front of a group of people, I get kind of shy, and when I start talking, I get red. I hate that. But when I'm on stage, that doesn't happen. I get nervous, but it's like, I let my character go. It's not me, it's my character."
The benefits of theater also extend beyond the stage -- and the school day.
"We do breathing exercises for warm-up," Moreno says. "And I had one student one year come and say, 'A guy pulled a gun on me in the bus and I used my breathing techniques and I swear it saved my life.' "
Literally, as well as figuratively, then, "I get to witness the saving of student lives in my daily work, which is such a gift," she says. "There’s nothing more than that, really."