Mike’s hair is slick and spiked. He slides out of his front-row seat and sits cross-legged on the floor, nearly touching the stage. The house lights go out and footsteps cross the floorboards. Then the floodlights come on, glaring. After the first few raucous lines of the play, Mike quietly slips back into his seat in the row he shares with five other Southeast Asian teenagers.
Their teacher, Janice Finney, had worried about bringing them. Senn’s Southeast Asian Satellite School in Uptown–for high school students having trouble in the regular schools–has only been open a month. Most of the 38 students have been in this country five years or less, and some have only just arrived. Wars burned up their childhoods, and few of them had much schooling before they came to the U.S. Some of those at the new school dropped out of other schools, some were kicked out. Some already have probation officers. Attention spans are short, and the classes have been hard to control. A quarter of the students often disappear long before a day is over.
Finney, who is doing play-writing workshops with the students, told them she could get 15 tickets for the Rally Theatre’s production of Distant Fires, Kevin Heelan’s play about construction workers and racial tensions in Maryland set in 1971. Six students showed up. Mike, Chan, and Soeun are Cambodian. Eddie is Lao, and Kim is Amerasian from Vietnam. Tu, who came to the U.S. only three weeks ago, is Vietnamese. He seems bewildered by everything, including his classmates.
Finney has warned them that American audiences don’t talk during a performance, but she needn’t have bothered. They sit quietly; occasionally, after a particularly coarse line, they look over their shoulders to where she is sitting in the second row.
At intermission they hurry into the lobby and light up cigarettes. Finney follows them out and asks whether they like the play. They nod and smile, and then laugh as they repeat some of the racier lines and gestures. They are all back in their seats before the second act begins.
When the last applause is over, all six, seeming a bit stunned, are still in their seats. The actors had agreed to come back and answer a few questions after the play, and while the rest of the audience leaves, the students sit talking. They’re unanimous–the play was great. Mike gets up and paces around, peering under the raised stage. Kim tries to jump up on it, but Finney stops him.
Three of the actors finally come back onstage and start cleaning up the cement they’ve used as a prop. One of the students asks whether it’s real cement. It is. Another asks how one of the actors made it seem like he was really looking at a woman on a beach ten stories below. For a split second after he had pointed toward an imaginary woman somewhere beneath the audience, the students had all looked for her. One actor explains the way he imagines what he is supposed to see. They ask how he made it look like he hit another actor. He demonstrates that he swings and just misses, while punching his own chest for the sound effect. Then he shows how the other actor wipes concealed rouge on his cheek.
Soeun is staring intently at the actor who played a bitterly angry black laborer. Only when prodded does Soeun ask him whether he really cried when he described being beaten and humiliated by police who had mistaken his character for someone else. The actor at first laughs and starts to brush off the question. Then he stops and says, “It’s like–what do you call it?” He looks around him. “Sense memory. You know, you just remember the worst thing that ever happened to you in your life.”
Soeun’s head jerks back slightly, but it’s not clear whether the answer registered with the others.
Kim has been picking at a piece of glow-in-the-dark tape that’s stapled to a step in the aisle. He tears off a piece and holds it cupped in his hands so he can see its light. Suddenly he jumps up and asks about the bits of tape on various props. One of the actors shows how the tape lets him cross the stage in the dark without tripping. Kim asks excitedly whether he can have a piece of the tape. The actor pulls his head back and then laughs. “Sure,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. All six students turn and almost run toward the lobby, where someone cuts each of them a three-inch strip of tape.
It’s after ten by the time the van that will take them home pulls up outside the theater. As they drive through the dark streets, the light fades from the pieces of tape they still have in their hands.
“Why did it break?” asks Eddie, holding his faded strip up.
But Kim moves to the front of the van and presses his piece of tape against the overhead lamp. He holds the bright strip up for the others to see. Eddie pulls out his lighter, and the flame licks up next to his bit of tape. When he snaps the lighter off, a small circle of light glows out of the center of the strip.