“Don’t shoot! I’m not just another Latino kid who is about to cause some trouble.” Those are just of the few of the resounding lines in the youth theater production On the Hill, which aims to spark a conversation about racial profiling, police shootings and the rapid displacement of Latinos from San Francisco. Presented by the Mission District-based arts organization Loco Bloco and directed by playwright Paul S. Flores, the play features 25 youth actors from Bay Area high schools and universities.
“As a Latino man in this community, you learn the problem is not only how people are looking at you, but how people are taught to look at you … your clothing, the color of your skin,” says 20-year-old David Calderon, who played the role of San Francisco native Alejandro "Alex" Nieto, who was shot and killed by San Francisco Police Department officers in 2014.
San Francisco's District Attorney’s Office determined the four police officers who fired 59 shots at 28-year-old Nieto acted lawfully, and the jury in a federal civil rights trial also cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. But for some, the case is an enduring symbol of troubling police violence and rising tensions in gentrifying neighborhoods like the Mission, where the Latino population has decreased 27 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the Census 2000 and American Community Survey 2013.
“How do you fight back? How do you claim your identity?" says playwright Flores, a respected youth educator. "That’s what these kids are doing in this play."
After recognizing the fear and anger many neighborhood youth felt in response to Nieto’s death, Annie Jupiter-Jones, executive director of Loco Bloco, approached Flores to help create and direct On the Hill. "We wanted to help create a space for healing,” she says.
For the making of On the Hill, Flores and the student actors interviewed Nieto's friend, Mission activist and writer Ben Bac Sierra, and other community leaders, including Juana Tello with Youth in Power and Causa Justa. Their words inspired many of the emotionally-charged monologues by youth in the play, staged at Brava Theater for the first time last month. The two sold-out performances ended with lively "talk back" sessions, in which audience members were invited to participate in a broader conversation about race, identity and perception.
Flores and Loco Bloco plan to continue to work with local youth to develop the play into a full-length production to premiere this fall, and have hopes of also touring it to other cities effected by police shootings. -- Kelly Whalen