Staying Power’s roots go back to 2008, when poet and activist Donté Clark and Michigan native Molly Raynor co-founded RAW Talent, a performing arts program for young people, in Richmond, California. When Raynor returned to Michigan in 2017, they began something of a cultural exchange between Michigan and California. With the help of some local grants, the Staying Power program was born.
The program went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. Raynor says this resulted in a series of weekly virtual workshops for “teens constrained by economic, transportation, or disability barriers,” as well as a name change to Staying Power/Staying Home.
In the spring of 2021, the program offered a virtual presentation entitled “Odes at home”, featuring nationally acclaimed memoirist Kiese Laymon as well as youth and adult Staying Power/Staying Home poets.
This year, Staying Power/Staying Home partnered with the Ypsilanti Community High School Choir for an in-person event. The show will feature 20 young people from the Staying Power program in a play written in part by the young people themselves and based on their own experiences of gentrification and housing instability. 20 other young people from the secondary school choir will also take part in the production.
“Last year we asked young people to write poetry about homelessness and gentrification, and theater was used in interludes for comic relief and to drive it forward” , said Raynor. “This time it’s a stage production complete with sets, scenes and characters. 20 additional young people will play the role of ancestors of the people in the show, and they will sing for them.”
The title of the show comes from a cast member, Anika Love, who wrote a poem which included the line “Spoke from the Soil”.
“We thought it was perfect for a title, because we’re focusing on Mother Earth and native plants and wisdom,” Raynor said.
Raynor says past shows have focused on land and real estate ownership. But over the past few years, Staying Power staff have focused on connecting to the land and honoring the Indigenous belief that you can’t own the land, but the land belongs to the people. They incorporated this theme into this year’s production.
“There is a [performer portraying a] A 400-year-old sugar maple telling the story of Ypsilanti before colonization,” says Raynor.
Teen animator and trainee Maria Theocharakis coached the students in their performances. She says that all participants live or work in Ypsilanti.
“It was important to highlight and stay true to Ypsilanti. We see each other in the stores and we participate in the economy of Ypsi, and we are all really affected by gentrification,” she says. “Most or all of the young people who came to the auditions were impacted by gentrification, rising rents, homelessness or displacement. It was important on this show to draw attention to these issues while honoring Indigenous peoples and the land we stand on.”
Tickets are $5 for youth 21 and under or $15 for adults. Free tickets are available for middle and high school students via email [email protected]. More information about the show and the Staying Power/Staying Home program is available here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and project manager of On the Ypsilanti field. She joined Concentrate as a news editor in early 2017 and occasionally contributes to other Broadcast Media Group editions. You can reach her at [email protected].
Photo courtesy of Staying Power/Staying Home.