A June 23 Metro article about a group of D.C. students working on plays with professional actors should have noted that the major funder of the program was the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs. (Published 6/24/2005)

The fourth- and fifth-graders in Bancroft Elementary School Room 202 were squirming. It was the last day of school, and the promise of summer was palpable. But the excitement had another source as well.

Karen Zacarias, 36, founder and artistic director of Young Playwrights' Theater, had brought along four professional actors to read plays the students had written. The kids gazed at the actors, somewhat in awe: real live actors -- in their classroom, of all places -- reading the students' work.

Since April, Zacarias has worked with more than 60 students from three D.C. schools -- Bancroft, Oyster Bilingual Elementary and Lincoln Middle -- to create plays inspired by a collection of Latin American portraits. For Hispanic Heritage Month this fall, the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater will present a piece called "Retratos: Portraits of Our World," based on the works composed by the fourth- through seventh-graders. It will be the first full Discovery Theater production written by kids.

The students have covered pre-Columbian history and Latin American art, monologue and dialogue, similes and metaphors. They have learned about reading aloud, working in groups and writing and rewriting. They have studied all this by writing plays about the imagined lives of several masks and sculptures that stare -- solemnly, nobly and somewhat ominously -- from the pages of an art book. "Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits," the collection on which the students' work is based, will come to the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center in October.

"It's a very dynamic literacy project," said Zacarias, who must meld all the student plays into a coherent whole.

Themes in the plays include self-worth, gender roles, use and abuse of power, the need for adults to listen to kids, and heritage.

The project "is about how we are portraits of our heritage," said Roberta Gasbarre, director of Discovery Theater. The Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan schools are heavily Latino, and many of the kids in the Bancroft classroom speak Spanish at home. Some of the signs and book titles in the Bancroft classroom are bilingual: "Door" -- "Puerta," "Shark" -- "Tiburon."

Students and actors joined in a version of the hokeypokey to loosen their writing muscles. They went around the circle saying the nicknames they have adopted for writing: Karen "Crazy" Zacarias, Jason "Outrageous" Graham. Zacarias asked them questions about the artists and periods about which they have learned.

Rodrigo "Utopian" Umanzor, 9, waved his hand resolutely in the air for every question and looked affronted for a split second whenever he was not called on. The muralist? "Diego . . . umm . . . umm . . . "

"Rivera?" Zacarias prompted.


The actors started reading the plays, letting the kids assign the roles in heated private negotiations. Character names included Puddles, Sarafie and Hotsecle. Lines rivaled "Star Wars." "I failed my 'hot room 101' test to become a Thunder God," lamented the character Teresa. Or "Listen, you unibrow girl, you don't have the strength to fight me. So cool it down, baby cakes and go cook something," bellowed the chauvinistic Puddles. Common threads were pig sacrifices, annoying siblings and fiery explosions.

"When they watch their stories come alive, hopefully that will keep them motivated to keep writing," said Lizzie Weeks, who co-teaches the Bancroft class with Lisa O'Neill.

Funded by a grant from the Center for Latino Initiatives, the students' play will run 25 to 30 times from Sept. 30 through Oct. 21, and Gasbarre projects that more than 3,000 people will see it. The kids, their families and Young Playwrights' Theater members will have the chance to come to a special showing. The students have already been to Discovery Theater to see where it will be performed.

The kids were enraptured to see the battle scenes performed, especially the hand-to-hand combat between Puddles and Sarafie that morphed into a seductive salsa dance. Rodrigo was wide-eyed at all the action and clapped exuberantly when each play was over; at 9 he was old enough to write a play and young enough to find it magically exciting.

Afterward, the actors offered congratulations and asked the students about their plays: who came up with what, how the god of thunder should act, how they might feel if they were other kids coming to Discovery Theater to see a play written by people their age. "Surprised," answered one. "Maybe we could do that," said another girl. "Astonished," Rodrigo said.

"Do any of you consider yourselves writers?" Zacarias asked.

Rodrigo and a couple of other students raised their hands a few inches in the air. They looked at each other for affirmation and then raised them higher. Soon the whole class had hands raised high. "Yes," they nodded. They were writers.

Q. Terah Jackson, left, and Cyana Cook act out a 'Retratos' play by students at the District's Bancroft Elementary. Joshua Dorsey, left, Maria Chavez, Ludys Fuentes and Airen Washington watch actors read from plays they wrote.