The lead cast members in a scene from "The Apollos." Samuel Getachew is in the back row, top left. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
On stage, it's the year 1981. A huddle of nerve-wracked teens waits to hear if state lawmakers will vote to pass Assembly Bill 312, the piece of legislation they've spent the last three years fighting for.
The votes come down in a cascade of "yays" and "nays," as tense piano music bubbles underneath.
"It's close. Shoot! It could go either way," says one student, in a state of high anxiety.
This is "The Apollos," a new play written, produced and performed by students from Oakland Technical High School under the guidance of their drama teacher Ena Dallas. It's based on the real-life story of an earlier generation of Oakland Tech students, who campaigned hard almost four decades ago to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a California holiday — several years before the national holiday was signed into law in 1983.
That class of students called themselves "The Apollos" after the NASA space program.
"Which means, 'We who reach for the stars,' " says Karen Kennedy, one of the core group of five students who led the charge under the supervision of their teacher, Tay McArthur.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Kennedy, now a retired teacher herself, says the idea to push for the holiday came up one day in McArthur’s government class. It was 1978, and the students were learning about the legislative process.
"Mr. McArthur was going on with his long, long lectures," Kennedy says. "And one of the questions came up was, 'Why isn't there a holiday for any people of color?'"
McArthur remembers it being a chance for the students to learn a real life lesson. "The students asked, 'What would it take to make it happen for the state?' " says McArthur now. "And I said, 'Open your books up to the page on how a bill becomes a law.' I said, 'This is what is required. It's not easy.' "
The conversation sent Kennedy and her fellow Apollos on a long and challenging journey, driven by their desire to honor Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated a decade earlier.
"There weren't very many African American figures to look up to that were strong leaders," Kennedy says. "And he was one of the main positive role models in our time."
The Apollos spent the next three years writing letters to lawmakers, knocking on doors to drum up signatures for their petition and making many, many early morning trips to Sacramento in McArthur's car.
"He even had his license plate named 'The Apollos,' " Kennedy says.
Some politicians were receptive to the teenage lobbyists. But others pushed back. "Every time we made a positive gain, there was a setback," she says. "But we never gave up."
Besides being a lesson in the legislative process, McArthur also remembers how much it meant for the students to feel so empowered.
"When the bill passed, they shrieked and cried," McArthur says. "Those 16, 17 and 18 year olds had power they never dreamed of. That's a biggie. They had so much satisfaction."
Forty years later, the current crop of Oakland Tech students are carrying on their spirit both on stage and off.
Senior Samuel Getachew, who co-wrote the new play and also performs in it, says Oakland Tech has a long history of student activism.
"Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, went here," he says. "We've always loved a good protest."
Getachew is also a proud activist.
"In my sophomore year, I was one of the lead organizers for a walkout in solidarity with the students from the Parkland shooting," he says, reeling off a list of actions he's undertaken. "We organized a voter registration drive in Tracy, California, which is a swing district for the upcoming midterm election."
Getachew hopes his fellow students will find The Apollos’ story as much of a call to action as he does.
"Mr. McArthur always taught his students that there was no excuse that lay in their age for them being unable to do what they wanted to do," he says. "And I want the parents in the audience to know their kids are more capable than they may think."
"The Apollos" plays at Oakland Technical High School through Sunday, Jan 19. Tickets and information here.