Anti-racist play ‘Mary Brave Eyes’ touring Nevada County’s middle schools | TheUnion.com

Anti-racist play ‘Mary Brave Eyes’ touring Nevada County’s middle schools

"Mary Brave Eyes," a local play that made its debut at the Nugget Fringe Festival, is not afraid of weighty topics.

Racism. Sexism. Bullying. Hatred. Fear. Love. God.

The production, currently making the rounds of the county's middle schools, also shows no fear — appropriately enough — of presenting those topics in a brutal fashion. A young boy chases a black girl, lynching rope in hand and the word "nigger" on his lips. A man spits in a woman's face. A girl sustains a possibly fatal punch.

The idea of the production came from a real-life experience from her childhood that haunted playwright Karen Leigh Sharp.

As the incident unfolds in "Mary Brave Eyes," dreamy Kassie protects Mary after she is chased by a group of boys intent on harming her because she is black.

In the end, love embraces hate and goodness triumphs over ignorance.

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After its festival run, "Mary Brave Eyes" began touring eight middle schools across Nevada County — Lyman Gilmore, Ready Springs, Nevada City School of the Arts, Magnolia, Grass Valley Charter, Union Hill, Seven Hills and Yuba River Charter School — as an anti-bullying/racism awareness performance piece. Retired teacher Steve Roddy provided teachers with an educational packet to prepare the students with civil rights history questions that are presented during the play.

On Thursday, the troupe, composed mostly of middle-school kids, completed one performance at Union Hill before packing up the sets and sound system and heading over to Grass Valley Charter.

After the one-hour play, the actors took turns hosting a question-and-answer session with the audience in Union Hill's multi-purpose room.

"What would you do?" asked Monroe Bouck, who portrays Kassie.

"I always try to step up," one boy said.

"I would stand up for that person, because it's not OK to make fun of someone," a girl agreed.

Several students brought up the fear of being made fun of, with poverty and disability recognized as possible targets for bullying.

In a powerful moment that echoed the message of the play, Sharp asked the crowd in the Bearcat Gym if they had ever been bullied, then invited them to share their stories.

"Being bullied is terrible, it sucks," one girl said. "I felt like I had nobody."

But, she said, she found out she was wrong when a friend comforted her.

Sharp asked the girl to come on stage for a hug and a round of high-fives from the cast, amid a wave of applause from her fellow students.

Afterward, Union Hill Principal Joe Limov and counselor Scott Mertz (whose daughter Layla plays a wheelchair-bound polio victim) spoke to the students before they headed back to class for a debriefing, what Mertz called a "collaborative conversation" about the themes of "Mary Brave Eyes."

Mertz said it was "phenomenal" to finally see the play performed at Union Hill. After all, he pointed out, producer Janine Martin is a former Union Hill teacher, many of the actors were recruited from the school's "Kindness Crew," and practices took place at the gym.

"This is the audience ('Mary Brave Eyes') is intended for," Mertz said. "This is the group that needs to hear this message."

Mertz said the fact that the students get to watch a play being performed largely by their peers really fostered their connection to the message being put forth — and that it has been a journey for the kids in the play as well.

Triston Druktenis, who plays Dirk Beeson, the conflicted "villain" at the heart of "Mary Brave Eyes," said he initially didn't want to take the part.

"I've never played the bad guy," he said. "It was difficult in the beginning, the stuff that I had to say to people, insulting people on stage … I was definitely pushing my limits."

But, Druktenis said, it has been well worth it.

"I love engaging with the audience," he said. "I love hearing the kids' opinions."

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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