Cherish Chang was onstage wearing a sign that said “invisible” as her Sawyer Middle School classmates stood behind her holding flameless tealight candles.
As recorded piano music played during a rehearsal Sept. 25, the 13-year-old — who was wearing all-black clothing — delivered a monologue from an anti-bullying play.
“Everywhere I go, I’m a nameless victim,” she recited.
For a seventh year, Sawyer’s advanced drama program will present an anti-bullying play called “The Weight of Your Words.”
Students are set to perform eight times Oct. 9 — six times for eighth-grade English classes, as well as two performances open to the public. Each will be followed by a chance to talk with students and ask questions.
There’s no cost to attend, but the Spring Valley-area school is accepting donations for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“The Weight of Words,” a 2011 play with music, was created by Florida-based Lovewell Institute for the Creative Arts. Sawyer refers to its adaptation of the play by a slightly different name.
The play sheds light on the effect and harm of bullying, and the potential for serious consequences.
Sawyer drama teacher Amy Roberge, who’s in her 23rd year teaching, first saw “The Weight of Words” performed at a drama festival.
“We were completely moved by it,” she said.
The play has “some language that’s rough,” Roberge said, but she added school administrators are supportive and recognize it’s a message students need to hear.
Each year, Sawyer adds dialogue and elements to the play to make it its own, with about 25 percent of the play adapted by the school. For example, cyberbullying was added last school year because it’s a relevant topic that wasn’t in the original script, Roberge said.
About the drama program
The drama program is popular at Sawyer, which is a Clark County School District campus. Of the school’s approximately 1,200 students, 198 are in drama classes.
“We’ve built a reputation for ourselves,” Roberge said.
In 2016, Sawyer’s drama program received a $38,500 grant from The Rogers Foundation. Money was used to create a summer theater program called the Sawyer Summer Stage, which remains up and running.
The advanced drama class has 29 eighth-graders. Roberge teaches other drama classes : two for sixth-graders, an intermediate class for seventh-graders and a beginning class for eighth-graders.
Each year, the school stages two plays, and rehearsals are after school. Any student at Sawyer, even if they’re not in the drama program, can get involved.
“Grant Sawyer Middle School is a Title 1 school facing many challenges in its efforts to help students to succeed and to provide them with tools, skills, and even food,” Roberge wrote in an email to the Review-Journal. “The Arts are very often a way to encourage students to go to school and provide a safe outlet in which they may learn and grow.”
‘A really hard role’
The advanced drama class started rehearsing in late August for “The Weight of Your Words.” Roberge let students essentially cast themselves in roles because she wanted them to have ownership in the process.
During a rehearsal Sept. 25, each student wore a sign with a derogatory word, such as anorexic, whore, slut and worthless. And on the back of each student’s black shirt, each picked out a word to display they’ve been called before.
On stage, a black paper backdrop has insulting words written in different colors of chalk.
As 13-year-old Khalid Mustafa delivered a monologue during rehearsal, he was wearing a sign around his neck that said “gay.”
Khalid told the Review-Journal he didn’t think he could take on such a serious role in the play.
“Usually, I do comedic roles, so this one is really shocking,” he said.
Khalid and Cherish have both been in drama classes at Sawyer since sixth grade and had seen “The Weight of Your Words” performed before.
“Me personally, I wanted to go into drama because of friends,” Cherish told the Review-Journal, but she discovered there’s a lot more to drama class than that.
Cherish said her role in the play requires a lot of emotion, adding, “This is a really hard role to play.”
“The Weight of Your Words” isn’t the only hard-hitting play Sawyer has tackled.
Through the Sawyer Summer Stage program in 2016, students performed a 9/11 memorial play, “War at Home,” written by Nicole Quinn and Nina Shengold.
It’s based on journal entries from New York high schoolers, teachers and residents shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sawyer students wrote companion pieces, which were included in the production.
There wasn’t a fee for audience members to attend the “War at Home” performance, but they were asked to donate to Paws and Stripes. They brought in $530.
The nonprofit provides service dogs at no cost for veterans who have conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.
If you go
What: Public performances of “The Weight of Your Words”
When: 2:30 and 5 p.m. Oct. 9
Where: Sawyer Middle School, 5450 Redwood St.
Admission: Free, but donations will be accepted for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline