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.
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.
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.
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.