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PLAY: Teens tell their story about growing up as children of farmworkers

The stage manager's voice echoed through the dark theater during rehearsals last week. He sounded like the coach of a football team that is down 20 at halftime.

"You guys got to believe in yourself," barked Nate Patterson. "You know this show."

He was right -- the teens on stage intimately know Las Memorias. They co-wrote the play, reaching into their daily lives as farmworkers' children for inspiration.

They proved Patterson right later that evening, and the audience rewarded their emotional performance with a standing ovation.

Las Memorias is a play based on the personal stories of high school students from three Central Washington farm towns. The free show, which is part of a Washington State University project, is coming to the Columbia Basin College Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

The play is not a continuous narrative. There are no lead actors, no heroes or villains.

It's a collection of stories, some told by a single actor, some in dialogue.

The stories are about rising above expectations. About dreaming big. About being the first in your family to go to college.

The students on stage also address topics not related to their education. The play includes episodes about the plight of undocumented immigrants and about being a devout Catholic who doesn't agree with the church's stance on gay couples.

Las Memorias is the brainchild of John Fraire, vice president for student affairs at WSU's main campus in Pullman. Fraire also is a playwright, screen writer and a member of the state's arts commission.

He took the students' answers to essay questions and shaped them into a coherent play.

Fraire described himself as a second-generation Mexican-American from Gary, Ind.

"Considering the changing demographics, I'm shocked by the lack of theater in Washington that is by, for and about Latinos," he said.

Three years ago he set out to create a platform to get students from farming communities ready for and interested in college through theater.

Fraire started Performance as Education in 2008, with high school students from Warden, a small town just south of Moses Lake that is predominantly Latino and low-income.

Finances forced the project into hibernation for a while, but it's back this year, this time with students from Warden, Mabton and Pateros, north of Chelan.

The purpose of the project is threefold, Fraire said.

It helps WSU recruit students from schools it has a hard time reaching otherwise. It boosts Latino theater in the state. And it helps a group of young people grow.

By their creating the play and acting in it, the students develop writing and public speaking skills, and raise their self-confidence, Fraire said. They will need all of that in college.

"Even standing up in class and asking questions is a performance of sorts," he said.

It seems to work -- half of the students who performed in the 2008 play went on to become leaders at Warden High, said Sandra Sheldon, the school district's superintendent.

"The biggest benefit is the confidence," she said. "They were really proud when they came back, and they inspired their peers."

One of the kids from that year -- Angel Gonzales -- became the assistant director of this year's performance. He is a student at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake and plans to study broadcast journalism at WSU.

He said he didn't fully realize how big an impact the play had on him until he saw this year's cast. Watching them on the first day of rehearsal reminded him of how quickly he grew from the experience three years ago.

"They (turned into) completely different kids from the beginning of that day to the end of it," Gonzales said. "They had more presence on stage, more confidence, and they knew just how much emotion to put out."

Acting out the familiar stories on stage can be very emotional for some. The production has a counselor in tow to address the pain that comes bubbling to the surface in some kids.

But painful or not, the kids are thrilled to be there.

"We come from a poor community," said Marlen Chavez, a senior from Mabton. "We don't see a lot of (theater). And this (play) is something that is real, that we understand."

Kids in Mabton never see opportunities like trying out for a play that tours half the state, said Isabela Ahumada, a senior. The play premiered in Pullman, moved to Moses Lake, will be in Pasco on Friday and finishes up in Wenatchee next week.

Erick Castillo, a sophomore from Warden, said he never had done anything like this before. "It was scary, but I wanted to sign up anyway," he said.

All three plan on continuing their schooling after they graduate. They said they feel better prepared for what's ahead after standing on stage.

"This takes you out of your comfort zone," Marlen said.

"I got confidence out of this that I can use in life," Isabela said. "I can better project myself."

And they hope that students who see them on stage will take away a lesson -- if these kids could do it, they can do it, too.

"I want them to know they can be themselves and step out of their shells," Erick said.

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