In songs and in earnest monologues onstage, the teenagers shared stories about overcoming the challenges that had sometimes defined them to others — cerebral palsy, autism, stuttering. Their stories were laced with sadness and humor, often ending with pleas to the audience to see them for more than their limitations.
“Some people think people with Down syndrome are not smart. That is not true,” said Veronica Brown, 18. “I want to contribute to the world just like everyone else. . . . I just wish that people would look at all of me, completely.”
In the darkened auditorium at Farmwell Station Middle School in Ashburn, Va., the play, called “The Same Sky Project,” stirred emotions among the approximately 250 seventh-grade students in the audience. Following the performance, they passed around a microphone and shared their own stories of feeling alone and misjudged, some of them wiping away tears.
“Since about fifth grade, I didn’t have a lot of friends,” a 12-year-old boy told his classmates, crying. “It was so hard.”
The social hierarchy at Farmwell Station, just like at many of the nation’s middle schools, has left some students feeling alienated. Being tagged as too weird can mean eating lunch alone, and jealousy can breed cruelty.
“The Same Sky Project,” which has been performed at several schools in Northern Virginia, aims to counter the sometimes-destructive social forces by encouraging children to “see beyond our labels” and to be kinder and more humane to each other. The organizers want to inspire students to feel empathy for their classmates, believing empathy to be “the antidote to bullying.”
This year, it is slated to be performed at a dozen schools across Northern Virginia.
Kim Tapper — associate executive director of A Place to Be, a Middleburg, Va., music therapy center that produces the play — opened the performance at Farmwell Station with an inquiry.
“Raise your hand if you feel like you’ve been labeled by a teacher or a parent,” Tapper said to the audience. A flurry of hands went up. “That’s our goal today, to help us see beyond our labels.”
Five years ago, Amy Stone, a music student at A Place to Be who has cerebral palsy, developed the play with staff members because she wanted people to see her for more than just her disability and her wheelchair.
“We try to teach empathy and that we might look a little different, but we can still contribute to our communities,” said Stone, 20. “We are not our labels.”
The musical play is bookended by two songs performed by the whole ensemble. In an opening number, the performers hold cloud-shaped signs with their diagnoses: cerebral palsy, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, depression. They sing: “I’m not my label. I’m just me!”
The rest of the performance changes with every cast, with members sharing their experiences through monologues and with songs they wrote with the help of A Place to Be staff members.
For some in the cast, music has become a way to cope and express themselves. And for others, especially those whose disabilities are not readily apparent to others, performing the play is the first time they have widely shared their struggles.
On Thursday, one ensemble of 16 young people debuted its performance. A teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum, played guitar and sang a soulful tune about the pain of being stereotyped as antisocial. Two boys with autism performed a duet about sometimes having trouble understanding the world around them. A young woman who speaks with a heavy stutter made her way haltingly through a monologue before breaking out into song, singing without difficulty.
“When I sing, the words come out easily. Smoothly like butterflies in spring, my voice develops wings,” she sang.
Cast member Olivia Lang, 17, was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after narrowly surviving a car accident as a child. She has since struggled to focus and comprehend while at school, and some classmates have called her “dumb” and “stupid” — even after she tried to explain what happened to her. The Loudoun County High School student said she believes it is important to share her story, hoping it will inspire others to be kinder to their peers.
“When you have a brain injury, you often feel confused, frustrated, angry, tired and other emotions all at once,” Olivia told the audience. “I used to be mad at the world that I was different and that it happened to me. Now, surprisingly, I am thankful for everything I have learned through this, and I am more empathetic.”
Olivia said it was a cathartic experience, one that took a lot of courage.
“It takes a lot for someone to get up and say, ‘Here are my flaws,’ ” she said.
The play resonated with the pre-teen audience, inspiring students to open up in ways they rarely do. They shared stories of helping siblings and parents cope with disabilities and illnesses.
“I know what it’s like to be going through things,” one girl said, crying as she talked about her stepmother being diagnosed with breast cancer. “I think it’s inspiring that you guys have the courage to open up and tell your story.”
For some students, the experience opened their eyes to the silent struggles of their classmates. After one boy said that he is unable to make friends, a bevy of his classmates approached him to embrace him and pat him on the back.
“I’m so sorry. I never knew,” another girl said, wrapping her arms around him.
At school, where the desire to fit in and the pressure to conform and be “cool” can be overwhelming, it was a rare moment when self-consciousness melted away, said Farmwell Station assistant principal Tonya Edwards.
“For a moment, they forgot what it was to be cool,” Edwards said.