By MAJA BECKSTROM
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS – It’s one of the most piercing scenes in a new play about bullying: A teen actress stands in the girls’ bathroom flanked by two of her tormentors. They tell her to look in the mirror and say, “I am ugly.” Then they offer her money to say it again and again.
It’s even more haunting because it’s true. Like most scenes in the play, “Mean,” staged this month by the Youth Performance Company in Minneapolis, the episode is based on the experiences of cast members and interviews with local teens. The play received such a strong response when it premiered in February that the company is bringing it back again for the month of October, bullying-prevention month.
As someone who has worked with youth theater for three decades, founder and artistic director Jacie Knight had grown increasingly concerned about what she was hearing from teens. It seemed to her that kids were getting meaner, less civil, more likely to say hurtful things. Then she saw a 2009 news report about a 15-year-old boy in Florida who was doused with rubbing alcohol and set on fire by classmates. The mother of the victim urged others to speak out.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I have a platform. We should do something about this,’ ” Knight said. “I’m so tired of hearing story after story about kids killing themselves or getting injured. So I went back to the company and said, ‘We’re going to do a show, and it’s going to be called “Mean,” because that’s what kids are to each other.’ ”
20-something Minneapolis playwright Rita Cannon to create a script based on interviews with dozens of people. The play follows three characters, a girl harassed because of her weight and appearance, a Muslim-American teen harassed because of her faith, and a boy bullied because of his perceived sexual orientation. Sprinkled throughout are monologues that touch on a range of other experiences – a boy with dyslexia teased for reading slowly, a girl stigmatized for getting free school breakfast, a boy who wonders if he might have been a bully when he teased another kid at school. Music and lyrics by Kahlil Queen give voice to the characters’ thoughts.
“We know we’re not going to stop bullying,” Knight said. “But we’re hoping we’ll inspire people to talk about the issue and talk about what’s going on in their school and community.”
Given that 13 percent of kids reported being regularly bullied at school in a 2010 Minnesota student survey, it’s hardly surprising that many cast members of “Mean” have firsthand experience. Brianna Belland, 26, who plays a sympathetic teacher in the play, contributed several scenes to the script.
A birthmark covering her neck and chin, now barely visible, earned her the nickname “Droolface” in elementary school. By middle school, she said, she was constantly picked on. She was told that she was unattractive, that she had crooked legs, that her hair was ugly and that she should cut it. She told her teachers but then got a reputation as a complainer.
“They said, ‘Brianna, just please let it go,’ ” Belland recalled. “I started accepting what kids were saying about me. I felt that if more than one person is saying these things, then maybe they’re true.”
One day, the ringleader and a sidekick cornered her in the school bathroom and told her to look in the mirror and say, “I am ugly.”
“So I did,” Belland recalled. “I thought it would make them go away. But they kept going: ‘Say it again! Say it again! I’ll give you a dollar if you say it again.’ ”
Belland admired the girl who harassed her. The girl was smart, sassy and popular, everything Belland wanted to be.
“The words, the insults, they never really go away,” said Belland, choking up more than a decade after the experience as she talked between performances. Revisiting the experiences, which she never revealed to her parents, has been helpful.
“It’s stepping outside myself,” she said. “Seeing what I lived through played by other characters, I get to finally see what I let happen to me. I now think: ‘No, that wasn’t OK. People should not judge each other that way.’ ”
Belland isn’t the only person who has found the play cathartic. Gina Lind
In the play, actor Sterling Lind, left, bullies a Muslim girl, played by Marisa Tejeda, center, for wearing a hijab in class. In real life, Sterling transferred last year from a school where he was bullied. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)
sat on a bench in the lobby with tears in her eyes after seeing the opening show, waiting for her 14-year-old son, Sterling Lind, to come from backstage. He plays a character named Austin who taunts a Muslim girl, calls her a terrorist and ultimately rips off her headscarf in class.
“But that’s not who he really is,” his mom was quick to say. In real life, Sterling was the one being harassed.
“The play was amazing, but it really made me really hurt for him, and for all the other students,” she said, wiping her eyes. “School can be such a hard place.”
Lind said her son was bullied at a middle school in the Anoka-Hennepin district last year. When he walked through the halls, he would hear the snide comments and insults: “fag,” “queer,” “go to hell, homo.”
“You don’t want it to hurt you, but you can’t push something like that off your shoulders,” Sterling Lind said. Kids muttered insults in class. And once, when he and a friend – a popular girl – posted their photos on Facebook, others chimed in with comments like “Why are you hanging out with the fag?” He told his mom he couldn’t go to school the next day. It wasn’t the first time he’d skipped class. School authorities were notified, he said.
Sterling ended up switching schools to escape, which is what a character in the play finally does. Last year, he applied to the St. Paul School Conservatory without telling his parents. When he was accepted, he convinced them he could take a 6 a.m. bus from his home in Ramsey to downtown St. Paul for classes every day. The bullying has stopped, his grades have improved and he’s found meaning in what he endured.
“I can take all the people who have ever been mean to me and make them into my character,” he said. “That’s what I do to become Austin every day. It’s a hard role. But I’m so proud of this show.”
Maren Carter wasn’t persecuted by a group of kids but she’s been hurt by words. “I’ve been called fat since fourth grade,” she said. “The worst things people say never leave you.”
Carter plays the character who is teased about her appearance. A scene where another girl texts a boy to ask if he likes Carter’s character is taken directly from Carter’s life. The boy texts back, no way, “She’s not pretty + she’s fat.” Like her character, Carter said, she contemplated suicide. She expects she will always struggle with how she feels about her appearance and weight.
Like everyone in the cast, she wants the play to give hope to kids who are being bullied and to inspire others to make it stop.
“It’s such an important message,” Carter said. “Knowing that there might be someone out there who might see the show and their life could be different, that’s why I’m doing this show. I saw a girl after the show crying. Those moments are so great.”
Although it might trigger tears, the show is not a downer. Other characters abandon the bully and start supporting Carter. The boy who is taunted for being gay switches schools, with his parents’ support. The Muslim girl is encouraged by a teacher, and other kids rally around her when she stands up to her tormentors.
“I thought it was uplifting, but also, like, intense and serious,” said Hazel Cutting, a fifth-grader at Emerson Spanish Immersion School in Minneapolis who saw the show recently. “It was very moving, and it taught me a lot about how I could stop other people from being bullied.”
Hazel saw the play for the first time this spring with her grandmother, and thought it was so important that her family donated money to the school so her classmates could see it. After the show, fifth-grade teacher Ahmi Griffith-Flores split the kids into small groups to discuss what they had seen.
“It was a good conversation starter,” Griffith-Flores said. “The play showed them how it would feel if it happened to you. It opened them up and got them thinking about it in their personal lives.”
Other students who saw the show said it was better than the anti-bullying films they’ve seen- “more real” and that it “meant more coming from people our age.”
Who knows what type of impact a play can have? Griffith-Flores said she believes she has already seen a change in her students’ behavior. When the fifth-graders started laughing at a classmate- she can’t remember why- she gently reprimanded them, and they stopped immediately.
“Bullying starts with one person making fun of someone else,” she said. “Then others chime in or maybe they laugh, and they don’t realize that laughing makes it worse.
“Before the play, there would have been some lingering laughter,” she said. “Now they’re are thinking about people’s feelings more. It’s already had an effect on them.”