SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Stages across America may be dark, but one local theater program doesn’t need a stage at all.
Radio on the Lake Theater Company is in the business of radio plays. During the pandemic, it teamed up with Story Forum to bring that format to the Shaker Heights School District. The program is called Inspired By.
The high school group’s third production was released this week to mark Black History Month. Written by Shaker Heights High School Senior Kendell Berry, ‘This or That’ revolves around the question posed by one teacher after a conversation with one of her students: “Do you guys think it’s more appropriate to say African American or Black?”
“It really tackles the issues that black students face in high school, and specifically, Shaker Heights High School,” said Berry.
Radio plays may seem like something from your grandparents’ generation. But these days they have a new audience, a new name: podcasts.
The Executive Director of Radio on the Lake Theater Caroline Breder-Watts told News 5, “We’re trying to create an homage to the past with the radio plays, but also create new plays for a new generation.”
Students quickly learned it’s a lot different than writing for the stage.
“I’m the type of person who likes to write about stuff that really involved movement, but because you can’t see it, you have to hear it,” Berry said
The students performing the parts found it a unique experience as well. Ben Rakow, a Shaker Heights High School student who plays a teacher with a problematic perspective on the question posed in the teacher’s lounge, told News 5 “There’s so much more you have to do with your voice and things you have to change that you can’t express in the same way.”
Playing these roles got the students talking behind the scenes too. Grace Wilkinson, who plays the teacher who posed the question, realized “in elementary school, I don’t think I ever had an African American teacher.” The work became therapeutic. “What was supposed to be 30-minute sessions of editing, would turn into like an hour conversation just about the issues we faced as minorities in school,” Berry said.
Each production is inspired by a story the students saw in the Shaker Heights High School newspaper, The Shakerite. It’s helping them channel their emotion.
Mia Compton-Engle wrote a play called ‘Tracking Uncertainty’ about her sophomore year track season being canceled because of the pandemic. “At first it was hard to just process everything that was going on,” she said. “But I think really working through it and turning my thoughts into words helped me process what I was feeling.”
She now works with the middle school Inspired By program helping the younger students create their own plays.
Berry hopes his work will inspire further conversation and action. “It really is deeper than just being a black student at a school, it talks about the opportunities we’re given as black students,” he said.