Ellei the Butterfly is pleading with R-Ralph the Balloon. If he embarks on space travel to another dimension, she insists, he might get his memory back. The witches on her planet can help with any ailment known to butterflies, and probably most known to balloons. Besides, he’ll have someone looking out for him.
The stakes have never been so high. He wants to remember what it was like to be younger. She's got to get him back to her planet, or she won’t be the country’s first butterfly lady president by midnight.
Played by actor Moses Ingram, Ellei is a character in Allison Miranda’s Lost Siblings, a warm and unexpected exploration of the lengths one will travel to reach their dreams. This weekend, it will come to the stage as part of the 24th annual Dwight/Edgewood Project (D/EP), a collaboration between the Yale School of Drama (YSD) and Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School.
For five weeks, eight sixth- and seventh-grade students from Barnard have been paired with individual School of Drama mentors, learning about the craft of playwriting firsthand. Supporting them is a small army of sound, lighting and costume designers, and dramaturgs also from the School of Drama. Some have just graduated; others have just finished their first year in New Haven, and are staying on for the summer.
Friday’s program will feature one-acts by by Jenishka Torres, Jayden Tyler Smith, Aqilleus James, and Allison Miranda and is directed by recent MFA graduate Chad Kinsman. Saturday night has work by Deanna Hebert, Kazik Sammy, Olyssa Mack, and Chelsea Acheampong and is directed by fellow grad Krista Smith. Both performances begin at 7 p.m. at the Off Broadway Theater downtown and both are free.
While Dwight/Edgewood has thick, decades-long roots, Project Coordinator Emalie Mayo said that it keep evolving from year to year, and that this was one of the most creative yet. From June 1-3, students and mentors headed to Camp Wightman in Grisworld, Conn., an hour away from their work in New Haven. There, students wrote their plays, one-acts that found unlikely heroes and unlikelier friends. Once they returned, D/EP members had two weeks to design, rehearse, stage, and get to final dress rehearsal.
“The playwrights get more and more creative [each year]—there’s no doubt about it,” said Project Coordinator Emalie Mayo on Thursday, as the theater exploded in rehearsal sounds. “I’m shocked but not too surprised—they’ve learned so much faster than we have.”
“It’s seeing the growth,” she added of the program as a whole. “Not just the growth of the writing, but the growth in the writing, the growth in how they interact with each other. To see them be able to give each other feedback, both with a critical eye and just as peers, that really gets to me the most. It comes through in the writing, but also in their interactions with each other.”
Mayo’s words stick as the lights go down, and voiceover narration introduces each playwright. A spotlight rests on them for a moment, students blushing and burying their heads in their hands as they are introduced.
Then one by one, eight plays with immense heart spring to life. In the land of butterflies, Ellei must travel through time and space—and recruit someone from another dimension—to prove that she has the chops to be president. A sparkly pink-winged, converse-boot wearing, polka-dot flaunting, first-ever butterfly lady president running against a big bully.
An island away, Morris the Mouse (Kineta Kunutu) and Balana the Banana (Caitlin Crombleholme) learn that they can be friends, even though they come from different places. A penguin (Patrick Young) fights with Mother Nature’s richly trellised left hand (Jakeem Powell) until the two can find middle ground. A dinosaur befriends a hot dog, because that can happen here.
“I feel like I learned a lot about writing and being specific,” said sixth grader Deanna Hebert, playwright behind Is This My Home? with Spot the Dinosaur and Malvin the Floating Hot Dog. “I’d like to do more of it.”
We find, in a wondrous world of middle-school imaginations, a series of plays that are as fearless as they are magical. Students are not afraid to take on loss and loneliness (one work is entitled Tragic Lovers), marching into fractured families, memory loss, and mortality with their eyes fixed totally on plot.
In one particularly moving work by seventh grader Jayden Smith, Puff Da Fluff the Cloud Person (Zachry Bailey) has been separated from his parents, a hole ripped clear through his side by an asteroid.
Thousands of leagues under the sea, Momo the one-tentacled octopus is trying to become a surgeon, discouraged as she reads surgical manuals that call for two tentacles. But Puff needs help, and he happens to be falling right into her O.R. at several hundred miles per minute. As their worlds collide, can she save him, and prove something to herself?
It’s silly at first: actors play up laugh lines and clipped accents, physical humor, the utter weirdness of it all. They ogle at each other about as much as you’d expect an octopus and cloud to on their first meeting. But it’s also profound: with little pretense, Momo throws herself into saving Puff with everything she has, and he trusts her with his life because he must.
The thing is, we want to be living in a world where Momo can fix Puff every single time, because it’s a world where easing one’s pain comes before their otherness. It is a world where disability is not sad or lacking (or inspirational, for that matter); where trusting your gut works; where we don’t rip children from their parents because of borders, but do everything we can to reunite cloud families. A world where friends are just friends, whatever side of the train tracks—or the ocean—they come from.
Lighting, costume and sound design have spun them into a whole other level of magic. We find ourselves launched into space with rapping, neon-haired cloud matter, then deep underwater in an octopus’ sandy den. Then we’re before a castle’s thick wood door, furnished with brass knockers, or grappling with global warming as ice floats crack in two, and a penguin must learn about palm trees for the first time.
In the second row of rehearsal, Mayo found herself close to tears at a rehearsal break. She explained to a colleague that the programs retains a sort of artistic core—students who trust the works, and then themselves in the process.
“We want to show them that words on the page can be larger than life,” she said.