Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Good viBe-rations

Written by Susannah Wexler
 Active Image From West Side Story to Gossip Girl, teen life has been chronicled for decades. It’s fun to hear about and fun to watch, but rarely does it match reality (and thank god, because who really wants Zack Morris’s depth and The Breakfast Club’s archetypal diversity?). That being said, as a teen, it may often feel like you are never given the opportunity to write your own script.
A Look Inside the viBe Theater Experience
Photos by Brayden Olson   
From West Side Story to Gossip Girl, teen life has been chronicled for decades. It’s fun to hear about and fun to watch, but rarely does it match reality (and thank god, because who really wants Zack Morris’s depth and The Breakfast Club’s archetypal diversity?). That being said, as a teen, it may often feel like you are never given the opportunity to write your own script.
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This silencing is not only frustrating—it can also be devastating. As Dana Edell, the executive director of viBe Theater Experience, pointed out in a recent interview, “Girls… experience great loss of voice in early adolescence…realizing that what they say [has consequences]; they get punished for speaking out so they don’t speak out anymore.” Not speaking out limits a person’s ability to make choices, which can have disastrous repercussions. Among other things, lacking autonomy means that women can’t make decisions about their bodies or themselves.

And that’s where viBe comes in. Founded by Dana Edell and Chandra Thomas in 2002, viBe is an awesome organization that gives young women the opportunity to write, perform, and create. The program initially sprang from a project that Thomas and Edell created while classmates at Columbia, working on their MFAs (Edell has an MFA in Theater Directing and Thomas has one in Acting). According to Edell, “There is zero contact between Columbia and the neighborhood around Columbia.” She “missed working with teenagers, and…missed working with girls.”
Thomas shared her sentiments. Instead of sitting around and pining for community interaction, during the summer between their third and fourth year of grad school, Thomas and Edell decided to produce a show at the Columbia University Theater that was written and performed by girls in and around Harlem. And the performance’s reception was amazing. “After the show,” Edell said, “the audience was like, ‘I know some girls who can be in your next show, and my niece would love this,’ and the girls were like, ‘This is what we want to write about in the next show.’”

The women had not planned to produce another teen-based play, but due to the enthusiasm their first show generated, they did, and viBe grew from there. Since its inception, viBe has produced forty-four shows, is currently working on a book, and runs many, many programs. “At the beginning,” Edell said, “we were just going to be making plays…our programs come out of what the girls need and what the girls want.”

Around the time of the first show’s debut, in the summer of 2002, Katie Eastburn, one of Edell’s friends from college, moved to New York from LA and became viBe’s songwriting coach. Eastburn had “always worked with girls” (while in college, for example, she ran a program for females in prison). In addition to working with young women, Eastburn is an amazing musician in her own right (check out her solo work and her work with Young People). Given her background, talents, and interests, viBe seemed like a natural fit. Eastburn has since made her way from songwriting coach to program director for viBeSongMakers, the position she currently holds.

Today, viBe consists of seven programs—viBeStages for girls interested in theater; viBeSolos for one-girl shows and small ensembles; viBeSongMakers for girls interested in writing, recording, and producing their own music; viBeApprenticeShip, a job training program for viBe Alumnae interested in pursuing theater careers; viBeGirlsInCharge, which essentially gives young women the opportunity to create their own arts education organization; viBeCreations, which gives pregnant teens and teen parents the opportunity to express their experiences, and Girls Life Adventure, an art-based life skills program co-created by Girls Write Now. In all of the shows, the girls do a little bit of everything—they write, they sing, they dance, and they perform.

I first met some of viBe’s current SongMakers—Ricky, Mawia, Monique, and Shanae, better known as Grade 13—at Katie Eastburn’s apartment in South Williamsburg. The other two members, Alex and Sabrina, were there in spirit. They had a show that Saturday and were figuring out their set list. As Monique lay on the floor, pen and notebook in hand, the others shot out ideas and teased each other with an almost sisterly familiarity. They talked about music. They talked about prom. And they talked about families. As they spoke, their voices overlapped in a way that only happens when women are together. “I’m closer to these girls,” Shanae said, “than I am to anybody.”

And this was apparent when it came time to discuss their work. Throughout our conversation, the girls seemed to have an intimate understanding of each other’s creations. “You know how people die alone,” Shanae said. “And people die like happy or sad and everything. My verse be talking about how I’d like everybody to have somebody.”

“She’s quoting the song right now,” one of the girls said.

“She’s totally quoting,” another echoed as Shanae continued to explain her lyrics.

“Oh my God,” Ricky said, “You totally rearranged the lyrics to that song.”

It is very rare that people have the opportunity to know another’s work as well as they know their own. And this is only one of the reasons why viBe is so incredible. (As one of the girls noted, “The thing about viBe is that you get to make more than what you want.”)
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On an artistic level, the girls’ work is tight, personal, and sounds professional. “Before I came to viBe,” one girl said, “I would just write and not go back to it, but with viBe, I’ve learned [the] discipline of actually writing, and actually appreciating what you write, and actually making it into something worthwhile.”

Grade 13’s songs have great beats and hooks and once putting on their CD, it is difficult to turn it off. In addition to being catchy, their songs explore complex issues. Among other things, the girls write about fathers; they write about wanting to be somewhere else; and they write about identity. Even as an adult, it is difficult to investigate these topics. The viBe girls, however, rise to the challenge.

At the heart of the viBe experience is the opportunity for girls to explore and define themselves. “Theater can give them the space,” Edell noted, “where they can test out certain identities…because a lot of girls…come out onstage for the first time through playing a gay character or being able to express things onstage that they’d never be able to express in [real] becomes this parallel role for them so in adolescence they can test the boundaries of, what will the reaction be if I say this out loud.”

The viBe girls’ work is smart, strong, and embodies a sense of self-awareness and confidence that almost every mother would love her daughter to have. Ricky, for example, raps, “I know you’ve heard a lot of things, like just how great I am/But I was not born perfect and I hope I never am,” while, in her viBeSolos monologue, Alex explains:
I define myself hypocritically…there is no complexity, simple simplicity. Driven by a soul, equipped with a never-ending motor, I define myself to be the backbone of my family, eyes and ears of my friends, the legs and arms of my counterpart…the braver part of those who don’t fit in…

Aside from defining themselves, the girls’ ability to assert themselves onstage helps to do the same off. One girl, Edell told me, was incredibly timid when she started with viBe. Now, according to Edell, “She fights back at school. She used to be very shy, and really quiet, and now she speaks up.”

Defining themselves through, among other genres, hip-hop, is a very exciting move. As the girls emerge onstage, they counter the misogyny that has often historically plagued hip-hop (think Ice-T’s gun-toting bikini-clad ex-wife on the cover of his Power album). And their awareness of the extent to which they are claiming this genre for themselves, is poignant. As Mawia raps:
I’m using hip-hop as an escape to another domain
Cuz honey-coated stanzas help me get rid the pain
See, at first I tried too hard to be like Lupe and Wayne
Tryna create verse that weren’t me all in vain.

Her ability to express herself through hip-hop, she knows, gives her the opportunity to change it. As she raps in a later song:
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Lately what I’ve heard has been sounding whack
Just verses about all the money that a dude can stack
and all the drive-bys you’ve done and every guy you’ve attacked
and when you’re done you mention all the hoes that you can mack,
but I’m here to make all of that stuff fade to black
the unconditional love I got is getting hip-hop back on track.

Aside from offering teens the opportunity to express themselves—and aside from producing amazing work— viBe centers its participants. “When I was growing up,” Shanae told me, “I used to be really bad, and then I joined activities like dancing and stuff…I noticed that whenever I have a problem, I will sit down and write and all of my anger and problems…I will write them down…and all that writing keeps me out of trouble in the house…it clears my mind.”

Monique echoed this sentiment: “It helps me keep my sanity…if I don’t sing, if I don’t write, I would probably be insane.”

“Plus,” Mawia added, “it makes us happy.”

Amen to that.

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