They're not actors, they're just kids telling their stories. Their individual experiences with violence are woven together to create a piece of documentary theater called "Secret History: The Philadelphia Story."
"It's a project to let teenagers do the talking, tell their stories, rather than have actors portraying them," said Ping Chong, internationally acclaimed theater artist and director of "Secret History." "We're just letting them do the speaking about their own lives, growing up in the inner city or the suburbs."
The work was commissioned by the Village of Arts and Humanities, a community arts center in the heart of North Philadelphia, in an effort to combat violence with words.
This teen-centric production is part of an ongoing series of oral histories meant to bridge the gap between cultures.
"Jump! Level. Silent jump. Walk."
Five teenagers warm up by kicking their feet and shaking their hands before rehearsal begins. They had only three weeks to prepare for the production, which premieres tomorrow night at the Painted Bride Art Center.
"Secret History" focuses on the personal stories of five students.
The play is staged simply with six chairs arranged in a semi-circle. Five of the chairs are occupied by the young actors. The sixth chair is empty, representing the teen who can't tell his story.
"Secret History" is a collaboration between the Village and People's Light & Theatre Company in Chester County. The five young actors are drawn from both organizations.
The play examines their lives. "It's stuff that we've been through but nobody really knows," said Joshia Genesis Dalnoroa, 17. "It's not really heard," which is the "secret" of the title.
Dalnoroa, a senior at Parkway Center City High School, has been a member of the Village's Teen Leadership Corps (TLC) for a year. She said she lives in the Badlands, the area between Allegheny and Lehigh avenues in North Philadelphia.
In the play she talks about a good friend who was killed in a drug-related confrontation.
Dalnoroa auditioned for the theater project because she wanted to be heard. "I don't have a voice around here because of my community. I thought this was a good opportunity to speak up."
Charisse Loving, a 15-year-old sophomore at Cardinal Dougherty High School, has been involved in TLC since she was 12.
Loving spent her childhood in Strawberry Mansion, and she said the family moved to Lawncrest, a neighborhood her mother considered safer.
Loving didn't want to leave her cousins and her friends in Strawberry Mansion, but found that by moving her world got a lot bigger.
Today, the African-American teenager's best friend is white, but until she moved, she said, she never knew a white person.
In the play, Loving talks about happy memories growing up with her cousins in Strawberry Mansion, but also describes seeing drug dealing and people being shot.
It wasn't until she moved out that violence really hit home - her cousin was killed.
"The hardest part [of being in the play] is talking about my cousin, because it's so fresh in my memory," she said.
His photograph is attached to the back of her script and during a blackout a spotlight illuminates Loving as she reads a poem about the violent circle that ended the young man's life.
Leon Sanford, a senior at Simon Gratz High School, has been participating in Village activities for four years. He didn't find it hard to talk about violence, because he's been dealing with it his entire life.
"I'm basically telling what I've been doing and what I've seen for the last . . . well, my entire life. It's really nothing new to me."
This past summer, Sanford visited South Africa with a group from TLC. Seeing the effects of apartheid in South Africa made him realize he shouldn't take for granted the opportunities that he has in America.
When he returned, he got help in applying to college and was recently accepted by Penn State University.
Romaine Hastings, 17, a senior at Chester High School, got involved in this project through People's Light & Theater Company. He's worked with the Malvern company since he was in the sixth grade.
When he was young, Hastings said, his cousin was killed. That was when Hastings decided to stay away from violence.
"Some people's outlet is to do something bad, but my outlet is to tell my story. Maybe it will help somebody else out or show somebody else that it isn't that bad."
Hastings expects to join the Marines after he graduates and eventually wants to study drama at college.
Claire Inie-Richards, 17, who attends a cyber school, is researching university theater programs, too. She has studied drama at People's Light for five years.
"Nothing really traumatic has ever happened in my life," she said, admitting that she felt somewhat out of place at the first rehearsal of "Secret History."
The other students' stories shocked her. "I had no idea about their stories and stuff that happens in real life. It's like - you see that in the movies!"
To create the play, Chong interviewed each student individually, asking them questions about their schools, home lives and experiences with violence.
"What interested me is what made these kids survivors," he said. "What are the conditions that would make a kid less likely to get into a life of crime and violence?
"It's like a weaving, a tapestry of five lives crisscrossing each other," said Chong. "In talking to each of them, different things emerged which gave me a sense of possibly why they made it and why other kids out there haven't."
As the play progresses, the answer becomes clear: Caring parents make the difference. *
Secret History: The Philadelphia Story, Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St.,
8 p.m. tomorrow, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, $15 adults, $10 students, 215-925-9914. Steinbright Stage at People's Light & Theatre, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, 7:30 p.m. March 6, free, but reservations required, 610-647-1900, ext. 101. Village of Arts and Humanities, 2544 Germantown Ave., 7:30 p.m. March 13, free, but reservations required, 215-225-7830, ext. 205.