Bullying. Domestic violence. Divorce. The death of a sibling.
They’re heavy themes for an elementary school, but they’re what some students face every day. That’s why a crowd of third to sixth graders packed into an auditorium at Peres Elementary School in Richmond on Monday to watch “Peace Signs,” an upbeat but emotional theater performance run by Kaiser Permanente that has been traveling to Bay Area, Sacramento and Central Valley schools since 1998. The goal of the performance is to open a conversation about the day-to-day violence some students experience at home or on the playground.
“Peace Signs” is a cast of five who sing, rap, and dance their way through the fast-paced performance to keep the kids laughing and engaged. There’s Bo (Stephen Hu), a sullen basketball player who starts fights on the playground because he’s powerless to stop his parents from fighting at home. There’s Trina (Jackie Goalwin) — or “Nerdina,” the name she’s called on the playground — who learns how to deflect the teasing by turning it into a joke. There’s Jessie (Karina Arrambide), the girl on the basketball team who gets teased because her brother was shot. There’s Alex (George Sellner), the kid whose parents are divorced but still finds a way to be close with both of them. And finally there’s Mr. H. (Galen Brown), the unbelievably cool teacher with a magic remote control that can freeze time, and rewind it, to give the kids a chance to play out alternative responses that will “increase the peace” in their lives.
The core message? Stop. Think. Act.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been called a name,” Mr. H. asks the crowd after he’s frozen a playground fight — mid-shove — with his magic remote. Nearly every hand shoots up.
“Now raise your hand if you’ve ever called someone else a name.” The same number of hands shoots up.
Teasing and bullying is the lightest — and most universal — form of violence that students experience. But the performance takes a sharp turn for the serious when the audience first sees why Bo is so angry on the playground. “How many times have I told you not to be loud when I’m on the phone? What’re you, stupid?” the actor playing Bo’s father yells, snatching a video game from his son’s hands. When Bo’s mom tries to intervene, the dad raises his fist and screams at her for undermining his authority.
The scene is evocative, even for the adults in the room. “It can be really scary when the adults in our lives fight,” Mr. H. acknowledges to the rapt audience.
“Peace Signs” is one of five educational theater programs with health-related themes that Kaiser Permanente offers free of charge to public schools in its service area. Based on a community health assessment that Kaiser Permanente conducts every three years, the medical consortium saw the need for violence prevention programs and started Peace Signs in 1997 in response, according to Frieda de Lackner, program coordinator for the show.
“Our theory is that if the entire community is healthier, our members are healthier,” de Lackner said.
The Peace Signs cast will return to Peres for a week of workshops in the classroom to help students process the lessons and emotions experienced during the show. All of the performers, who are adults playing school-aged kids, receive extensive training as peer counselors and about the issues that the “Peace Signs” show confronts.
“It’s a good way for kids to debrief,” said de Lackner. “It can help them to process and see that they’re not alone. Some of them feel they can’t talk to someone. But there is a support system.”
“We see it in school,” said Jawan Eldridge, vice principal at Peres Elementary, referring to problems at home. “It comes out in different ways — behavior, depression. Certain students, you can tell something is bothering them.” The younger students in particular tend to express emotions through their bad behavior rather than words, Eldridge said.
“When we’re playing, people get mad,” fourth grader Fatima Lopez, 10, told Richmond Confidential after the show.
“People make bad decisions,” classmate Karla Lopez, 10, chimed in. “Teachers have to tell them to calm down.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t work,” added Vanessa Chavez, 1o, another classmate. The three girls said talking to their teachers or parents was the best approach to stopping teasing at school.
There is an on-site counselor at Peres who is available to students on a regular basis, as well as a social worker. But for the next week at Peres, the students can turn to the performers for support as the Peace Signs programming continues.
“They feel special because they haven’t seen theater before,” said George Sellner, 35, who plays Alex in Peace Signs and has been acting for Kaiser Permanente’s educational theater program for twelve years. “A lot of schools don’t have the funds.”
Jackie Goalwin, 23, who plays Trina, says that kids sometime come up to her and say, “I like your character because I get teased, too.”
“The performers become like rockstars,” said de Lackner. “It’s almost like if Hannah Montana came.”
Peres Elementary invites parents to join for a Family Night performance of “Peace Signs,” followed by a discussion, on Thursday, May 19.