Inspired by a Community of Youth

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Minutes after Tahitian dance trio People of the Islands brought staff and students on stage to learn the ‘ote’a, and shortly before the final carne asada taco was eaten, the confident and strikingly prepared high schoolers from Durham, North Carolina took the stage in the packed Stevenson Event Center.

The eighth annual Birth of Word Festival took place this past weekend, turning the campus into an international crossroads for talent and unabashed expression. A two-day platform for poets, musicians and actors, the festival focused on giving youth the opportunity to express themselves to people outside of their community.

Finding that community, whether it be art, or just seeing someone else’s story that is similar to your own on stage, is powerful because it’s creating a whole different sense of community, one that is important for everybody to keep moving and surviving,” said event organizer Jessica Jones.

Presented by Cultural Arts and Diversity, Rainbow Theater and students in the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Internship Program (CUIP), the Birth of Word Festival began on Thursday with a tour of campus, but the heart of the festival spanned Friday through Saturday. Throughout Friday, high school students from Durham, North Carolina’s Hillside High School attended theater workshops, with all but one led by Cultural Arts and Diversity affiliated students.

The final workshop, titled “Hip-Hop Theater,” was taught by Kathryn Ervin, head of California State University San Bernardino’s theater department. The workshop ran through the elements of hip-hop, and ended with the attendees acting out a hip-hop rendition of the prologue to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“The instructors may ask something or give something that [the students] may not have gotten. That’s where the learning comes in,” said Hillside High School International Theater Program director Wendell Tabb. “You’re never too old to keep on learning.”

As the workshops wound down and the evening set in, attendees filled the Stevenson Event Center for a banquet dinner and a series of performances half planned, half impromptu open mic.

When Friday’s MCs asked the audience if anyone was willing to perform, there was a moment of weightlessness, as everyone looked around and hoped the next person was more willing, except the Hillside High School students. They were the first to march on to the stage, eager to express themselves.

Everybody had a beautiful spirit,” said Symone Crews, a Hillside High School senior and one of the eight high schoolers to take the stage. “They were so open, encouraging and real. We don’t get a lot of that back home. We shared that with some students here and they said they don’t get that at home either, but this place is just a safe haven. It made me appreciate my craft more.”

Some of the high points of Friday night’s performances were three performances by Hillside High School students and an emotionally taxing spoken word piece by UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theater Arts Troupe president Precious Wingo.

“Last night, the spoken word pieces, the high school kids’ routines — that was amazing. You get to hear some stories that you didn’t know you were gonna hear,” Ervin said.

Saturday’s structure included an eclectic itinerary. It featured performances from a capella group High Tones, Slam Poetry team CUPSI, Mexican folk dance group Los Mejicas, Rainbow Theater’s recently formed dance team Rainbotz, a team of poets known as Poet’s Corner, spoken word by 2008 UCSC graduate and Rainbow Theater alumna Luisa Santos and Tahitian dance group People of the Islands.

The most anticipated performances were the final two — Hillside High School and Fiveology — partly because of the distance they traveled, and partly because of their reputations. Hillside High School students blew away the audience during the previous night’s open mic session, and Fiveology are fresh off a tour opening for R&B singer Jill Scott.

Hillside High School performed an original piece called “See Me.” The performance featured all the students on stage at once, and many of the lines were quotes from famous black thinkers, like Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela and Sojourner Truth, but it also featured bits of songs, like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”

“You could really tell they had a strong bond and were open enough to one another, but they were also open to us in Santa Cruz to share their story. I thought that was really powerful,” said Birth of Word organizer Jessica Jones.

“See Me” was a whirlwind performance packed with historical references of dialogue and song. It was a depiction of what it would look like to try to synthesize the many voices of history, and then move forward.

“I said my ‘See Me’ monologue a lot differently than I had in the past, and that’s because I found something in it through meeting the people here,” said Hillside High School theater group senior Symone Crews. “I found that I do want to be seen, number one, and I don’t want to be discriminated against, number two.”

Following the Hillside High School performance was spoken word collective Fiveology, and despite the group’s arguable celebrity status, they were incredibly grounded.

‘“I write because at times, it saves my life,” said Fiveology member Jovan Johnson, Ph.D. “I write because I don’t know how not to.”

They were confessional and vulnerable, funny and flawed. They spoke about femininity, materialism, love, being men, being black men, and youth, all told with the utmost sincerity. It was a warm, intimate performance, and judging by the roar of cheering, clapping, and of course snapping, the audience felt the poet’s words.

With that, the annual Birth of Word Festival came to a close. Except not entirely.

Like the night before, the MCs welcomed Rainbow Theater and AATAT director Don Williams on stage. He graciously thanked the guests for coming, the students for working and the artists for performing, announcing the end of the event. Except the music got louder. More people got up and danced, more people sang, talked and shared stories. The event had not ended at all.

It’s like something Don Williams tells his students, and something that got repeated throughout the festival: “If you want to be truly blessed, learn to uplift someone higher than yourself.”

Check out more photos from Birth of Word here