Several middle school students attending the after-school program at 7 Teepees have been commissioned to help with the set design for Intersection for the Art’s “Habibi,” a play about a Palestinian immigrant family’s struggle with identity that opens tonight.
Ah, the possibilities. Oh, the problems.
“I am going to be who I set out to be,” raps one boy wearing an oversized white shirt and baggy jeans as he saunters in for the final session to turn wooden crates into light boxes for Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s set.
Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez hands out colored and decorated transparent sheets. The middle schoolers have been instructed to decorate them with something they love about their heritage and dislike about it, and to cut and paste their favorite thing about their new home in San Francisco.
Tacos and Mexican flags are the running icons — a reminder that many have roots in the Americas.
“Who’s is this?” Fernandez asks as she holds up a Mexican flag with the word “murder.”
Nearby, a boy with short clipped hair spells out VIOLENCE on one of his sheets. On the left corner of his box, two red stick figures shoot at each other.
“There are always people killing each other, it’s the law that they kill each other,” he explains about Mexico, which was his home until two years ago.
His attention drifts, and he launches into song: “La marihuana, la marihuana, ya no se puede vender….”
A girl with a giant ponytail and glasses joins in, singing to the tune of “La Cucaracha.”
Another young artist works diligently, painting her crate lime green. She too has “violence” cut out on a red-and-blue striped sheet. “I didn’t like the violence in Mexico — lots of people were getting killed — I heard it in the news,” she explains.
But she loves plenty about America. “Horror and mystery books” she prints on another sheet. “I really like reading a lot!”
Fernandez pushes her students to dig deeper. “Come on, make something you like about your culture,” she says to the young rapper, who is now wearing the wooden crate around his head. “Leave my head alone I am Spiderman,” he says in a rhythmic staccato.
Nestor, who works at 7 Tepees, comes to Fernandez’s rescue.
“Write something about your culture.”
The boy ignores him.
Nestor tries again. “What is your heritage, what do you like about it?”
“El Salvadorian,” the boy says in monosyllables. “I don’t want to do one. Mine sucks.” He pushes away his colorful piece with the words “don’t worry” and a musical note cut out. “I just don’t like anything.”
Fernandez looks over. “Wait, music — you are constantly singing, you sing all the time!” “Just let it go like a balloon,” the boy sighed, but he grabbed a new sheet, slowly spelling M-U-S-I-C.
The staff too tries the boxes. Nestor, a second-year student at San Francisco Community College who works at 7 Tepees, is finishing his box. “This here,” he points to one of his decorated layers mounted on a crate, “is an ice cream cone, it is Mexican Vanilla — it represents the sweetness of my heritage and its originality.”
But as he holds up the box, a beer bottle labeled “powerlessness” is clearly visible.
“Unfortunately, alcohol drags our culture down,” he says, then gets specific. “My dad was alcoholic….”
“You used to drink?” one girl asks, pulling away from gossip with a friend. “No, my dad did, he doesn’t drink any more.”
Then he adds, “ I haven’t seen him in five years.”
“Its hella good,” says the girl, looking at his lightbox.
The rapper is back at his crate, printing his name next to the names of his rap heroes, Eminem and Lil Wayne.
“I think I will just put this one sheet in,” he says, holding up his scruffy piece with the word “music” smudged over the top. His colorful “don’t worry” lays discarded on the table.
“Wait, put both in,” says Nestor. “You have to, it’s brilliant. Don’t you get it? What does music do to you? Music makes you forget. It makes you not worry!”
The boy looks up, thinks, frowns. “That’s stupid…” he says, then sighs in deep resignation. “I don’t care, as long as I don’t get into trouble.”
“Habibi,” by Sharif Abu-Hamdeh with Intersection and Campo Santo, plays Thursday, October 14 through Sunday, November 7, 8-9:30 p.m.; $15-$25.