Sequoyah drama students go for ambitious theme

Grant D. Crawford | Daily Press

Students at Sequoyah High School rehearse their one-act version of the play, "When We Were Young and Unafraid" at the school's gymnasium. Pictured from left to right are: Hannah Jimmenez, Chance Chambers and Chyna Chupco.

While many high school drama departments steer clear of plays with mature content, the students and staff at Sequoyah High School are refusing to play it safe.

Amanda Ray, drama teacher, said high school performances are often "silly" with little meaning. Instead, Ray wanted something with a strong message that could challenge her students.

"If I didn't have the students and didn't already think they could handle it, then I wouldn't have done it," Ray said. "For some reason, when it comes to acting - since they're going to be physicalizing it - we don't want them to do anything mature. I'm like, why? Because next year they might be in college in a theater class, reading great plays."

Students in Ray's competitive honors class performed "When We Were Young and Unafraid" during the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association Regional One-Act Competition at Rejoice Christian School in Owasso, Thursday. The play centers on a woman named Agnes, who runs a bed-and-breakfast that doubles as a shelter for battered women.

One of the guests - a victim of domestic violence - goes by the name of Mary Anne. Portrayed by senior Chyna Chupco, Mary Anne's character isn't what the actor is used to, but she's found a connection with it.

"She comes to the house and causes a stir for everyone," said Chupco. "It's really intense. It's something different, because I've never performed in a one-act before. I've done speech and debate before, and I've done HD, which is humorous duet, and it's all comedy. I've never done something serious like this."

The story is filled with quarrels and controversy. Perhaps one of the most dramatic portions calls for Chupco's character to slap Ally Chambers, who plays Agnes's daughter Penny. Ray said the students had to practice the scene several times before they could perform it convincingly.

"I didn't want to do a real fake slap, and we're not doing a six-month run of a show where the poor girl is going to get slapped every single night," said Ray. "It's a lot to take into consideration. We talked about not hitting too high to where you hit the bone, but hitting more of the fat. It's hard to do all of that in a split second and have it ring true."

Ray added that a scene involving a punch would require far more preparation, including choreography.

Chupco said the slap is something she thinks about extensively beforehand.

"I think the first time we did it, I hit her pretty hard," she said. "Then I tried to ease off, because she said her face was bruised. I really didn't want to hurt her. She'll give [feedback] to me right after, like,'That was a good one.'"

The students begin reading the script in class, where Ray pays attention to how they read their lines and work with one another. Two of the characters, Mary Anne and Paul - performed by Chance Chambers - find themselves in a romantic relationship. Chupco said her relationship with Chambers and the rest of the cast made it easier to play out the more dramatic scenes.

"We were already in speech and debate together, so we all knew each other and we're all really good friends," she said. "I think it works well, because we connect with one another on stage."

Paul is the only male character in the play. Chambers said he didn't expect to get the part, but that his ability to connect with the character may have helped his chances.

"He left his wife, because she was smoking grass," said Chambers. "It was the 60s and she kind of turned into a hippie. He was like, 'You know what, I'm not taking this. I'm out.' So he's a singer-songwriter and he comes to this bed-and-breakfast and he's just writing songs. I can kind of relate to him."

This is the third year for the SHS drama team to perform a one-act play. In the past two years, the group has reached the state competition. This year, Ray hopes to do the same, but with a greater level of success.

"I really want to place at state," she said. "We got so close last year, but it really is a crapshoot. You have three judges at regionals and you have to place first, second, or third there to make it to state. Then you've got thee completely different judges at state. They like different things and you just never know."

Before each performance, Ray encourages her students to get into character by using the phrase, "Go into the water," and telling them not to come out no matter what occurs. Ray said she's not worried, though, because all of her students have a natural ability.

"We're going for honesty and believability," she said. "True characterization and eye contact with one another; just have those moments as those characters and don't worry about anything else."