Poet, novelist, and short story writer Gary Soto is known for his unsentimental, leanly written portraits of Chicano life in the Fresno of his youth, some of which are geared toward adults, others toward young readers. He is less known as a baker of biscotti, which he brings in bundles as gifts to interviewers, and only slightly better known as a playwright. In and Out of Shadows, which premieres at the Marsh S.F. this weekend as part of the Marsh Youth Theater (MYT) program, is hardly Soto's first play, yet the medium of theater still feels new to him. The text of the musical comes from interviews with undocumented youths in Richmond and Pinole; MYT participants conducted the interviews, and Soto shaped them into a play. We talked to Soto about writing for the stage, his collaborative process, and the remarkable timeliness of the project.
Tell us about the genesis for this project.
It started with [MYT program director Emily Klion] pestering me to do something with undocumented youths. I'm not a playwright, but I thought, I like theater, and I want to be part of this world without letting this opportunity pass. It's a test for me. I'm not a political person. I'll test myself and see if I can go beyond my comfort level and do something with a political bent.
Creating this show has been a two-year process. What's it been like getting to know the subjects of your play?
It's a heartfelt situation. [For all of us], daily things fracture our emotional balance. So you can only imagine what it's like for someone who could get deported, who can't drive, who can't get placed in a job. We went to one school's AB540 club, a club for undocumented students. They were nice, sweet kids. Some of them might have problems or might have made bad decisions, but they were wonderful kids, receptive to my simple, stupid jokes.
How did the writing collaboration work?
Young people were getting to know how to interview someone, transcribing, so it was a project for youths as well. I had 300 pages of interviews!
It must have been overwhelming to whittle that into a script.
At first the show was like A Chorus Line, where everyone comes up and tells his or her story. But that was too straightforward, so I decided to weave some conflict and connections in there. There are a lot of Filipinos in Pinole and a lot of Mexicans in Richmond, so I tried to connect [those youths], even though they're separate.
Some of the characters we'll meet include students of different races who start a rap group called the Originators, Putri, a smart and ambitious young girl who wants to become a doctor, and Angel, who, at age 13, entered the U.S. by himself through a sewer. How did you select these stories out of the many interviews?
By training I'm an imagist, able to conjure a very strong image. [I want my characters to be] loving, strong, likable, and very pronounced.
Which stories didn't make it in?
It was worrisome to me that some groups weren't represented because they wouldn't come forward. There was not one Chinese student who was interviewed.
How did you deal with that?
There are two young Filipino women who were very vocal, and their stories are in there. But I wanted to make [the play] as a wide as possible without making it unidentifiable, to balance that with being faithful [to the interviews].
You, Emily Klion, and George Brooks wrote the show's original music and lyrics. How does music support the show?
This is a serious subject, and I wanted to make it a musical comedy to make it a positive experience. I wanted to give [the undocumented students] power. Singing is power. Dancing is power. I want [young audiences] to be energized to carry on and to give artistry to the issues of undocumented youth.
With Obama's inaugural address and the various new proposals for an immigration overhaul, many including a version of the long sought-after dream act, this is an exciting time to be exploring with the stage the lives of undocumented youths.
I think something positive's going to happen this year. If not, I'll vote Republican.
In and Out of Shadows opens February 2 and continues through February 17 at the Marsh S.F., 1062 Valencia, S.F. Admission is $12-$35.