Edit ModuleShow Tags

What Inspires California’s Young Playwrights? Faith, Family...and Trash

The annual Playwrights Project contest winners grapple with identity and take a dumpster dive into existentialism


Diego Castro, Tommy Tran, and Claudette Santiago in Trash! The Musical | Photo: Ken Jacques

I was first hipped to the California Young Playwrights contest back at the turn of the millennium, when one of my high school classmates was a winner. Open to any Californian age 11 to 18, it’s the most celebrated event put on by the Playwrights Project, which also runs multiple community workshops and educational programs for youth and adults.

At the time we all recognized what an amazing opportunity it represents—to have your script professionally produced or read at The Old Globe—but I never knew just how selective the contest is, too. It’s now in its 34th year, and that same classmate is now part of the team who chose just five winners out of 415 entries received.

That kind of ratio leaves no doubt that this is the best of the best work being done by the next generation of California playwrights, and it’s a rare privilege to see what is, in most cases, the first time their stories have come to life onstage.

This year’s winning plays consist of two staged readings and three full productions. I saw the latter on opening night, but for the remaining performances they’re split into two programs—so here’s a cheat sheet:


January 22, 10 a.m.—Program A
January 23, 10 a.m.—Program A
January 25, 7:30 p.m.—Program B
January 26, 2 p.m.—Program B
January 26, 7:30 p.m.—Program A


For best results, attend both programs—but grab those tickets quick, because as of this writing, matinees on January 24 and 25 are already sold out! I regret not being able to make the readings, because both of them came from right here in San Diego County.

Program A’s reading, Just Let Me Help, was cowritten by Marco Herrera and Christopher Johnson, both sophomores at Bayfront Charter High—and the latter’s first experience in playwriting, no less. (Let’s hear it for my hometown, Chula Vista!)

It’s also amazing to think that Shyla de Hoop, writer of Have Hope, is just in seventh grade at Creative Performing Media Arts in Clairemont. According to her bio, she’s also on a roller derby team—clearly a versatile talent you don’t want to mess with. Her reading is in Program B.

Daniel Woods and Jalani Blankenship in Sea of Fog | Photo: Ken Jacques

The first production in Program B, Sea of Fog, is a fascinating collision between two teens who know each other from group therapy. Denise (Jalani Blankenship, a UCSD theater major) is a devout Christian with a poorly defined sense of personal boundaries and a compulsion to save the lost. Daxx (Daniel Woods) is anxious over a lack of control in his life, fearful that his peers will leave him behind, and protective of his sister, who’s falling in with a dangerous new boyfriend. Writer Jack Ventimilia, 16, from Studio City's Bridges Academy, demonstrates an acute ear for letting imperfect personalities bounce off each other. I’m usually wary of art that explicitly calls on work from another medium for resonance, but the images he conjures from a famous Romantic painting are sharp and well positioned, and the smart choice to avoid a tidy resolution lets his characters’ interactions percolate freely in your mind awhile afterward.

Lettie S. De Anda and Nancy Batres in A Mother’s Mother | Photo: Ken Jacques

Next in Program B is the multigenerational family drama A Mother’s Mother, by Santa Clara University’s 18-year-old Emma Kuli. Billie (Nancy Batres) and her mom, Willa (Lettie S. De Anda) get into an argument over what to order for dinner while they’re setting up the nursery for Billie’s first child. It’s a great, realistic hook: Kuli knows that arguments, especially among family, are usually icebergs that are really about their subtext. The difference between the less-expensive beans and fancy kind isn’t what’s really on their minds, but it is the entry point for mother and daughter to gradually open up about the hopes and trepidations they have about this new chapter in their lives. It becomes an emotionally raw exchange that gives both women insight into the other’s conceptions of motherhood. Willa’s stories of her own mother culminate in a memory of visiting her old house only to discover that strangers now live there, which is an evocative, powerfully written moment that I found myself wishing had a little more space to land.

Tommy Tran, Claudette Santiago, Diego Castro, and Amy Perkins in Trash! The Musical | Photo: Ken Jacques

The highlight of this year’s selection is Trash! The Musical, which sets a high bar for future winners, fitting more than a half-dozen songs into one trim act. Owing some inspiration to the Toy Story series—or even more, if you’re a little older, to The Brave Little Toaster—it uses the cartoony device of animate objects to both have fun with silly wordplay and physical comedy, and then pull the rug out from under you with deep questions about finding one’s purpose in life, being useful to someone versus feeling worthless, and having your whole conception of self shattered.

Our protagonist is Trash (Claudette Santiago), who gradually learns that she’s a discarded manuscript by the one human character, Writer (Krista Wilford). Trash’s newfound friends awaiting damnation or redemption (er, recycling) are broken calculator Texas (Tommy Tran, a Mesa College student with fantastic robotic mime skills); Dolly (Amy Perkins), a ballerina doll whose solo involves a thrillingly nightmarish repetition of “I’m perfect, I’m perfect”; Rusty (Diego Castro), an actual trash can and the most cynical realist about their lot in life (paging the Little Toaster’s Air Conditioner). Even Piano (Michelle Gray, also the play’s music director) gets a clever transformation from assumed background to diegetic presence.

I wish I could gush at greater length about the entertaining surprises in this one, but they deserve to be experienced fresh—and as such an animation fan I may be a little biased, but this story deserves expansion into a full-length musical, too. Many kudos to writer Naomi Melville, a senior at Mt. Carmel High School—another local! She was previously a finalist in 2016’s contest, so I bet we’ll be hearing her name again soon.

Go check out this great new work, and if you know some young people who could use some inspiration, bring them—Playwrights Project is already accepting submissions for this year’s contest.

Plays by Young Writers
Tickets remain for performances on January 22, 23, 25, and 26
by the Playwrights Project
at The Old Globe

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

Comedy + Drama Double Feature: Two Great Plays to See This Week

Herbert Siguenza’s Bad Hombres/Good Wives by San Diego Rep, and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel at New Village Arts

The SoCal (Social Calendar!)

From black-tie galas to costumed 5Ks, these events will keep your social calendar full—and you feeling good

The Contender: Buffalo Wing Star

A Mexican riff on Buffalo wings is near the top of our search for the city’s best
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


The Vape Debate

Two Scripps doctors weigh in on this dangerous trend

Kaiser Permanente San Diego Makes Life Easier

Kaiser Permanente brings high quality, affordable care to San Diegans when and where they need it
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. The Best of San Diego 2019
    Our annual compilation of everything delicious, cool, and Instagrammable in San Diego (and Baja!)
  2. The Problem With Bright Red Tuna
    Many Americans still think bright red tuna means it’s fresher (it’s not)
  3. First Look: Animae
    Puffer Malarkey Restaurants unveil 5.5 million-dollar pan-Asian concept
  4. Jason Mraz and his Historic Coffee Bean
    The singer and Bird Rock Coffee Roasters unveil the first California-grown Geisha coffee
  5. Morning Glory Is a Millennial Wonderland
    The Little Italy restaurant may finally break San Diego's aversion to brunch
  6. A Deep Dive into the San Diego Fishing Industry
    A $2 billion project is poised to revive San Diego’s commercial fishing industry
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module