For its first professional play, Philly Young Playwrights takes on gun violence

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Danielle Coates (left) and Ang Bey (right) rehearse

Danielle Coates (left) and Ang Bey (right) rehearse "Candles," an original play written by 10th grade student Angelina DeMonte about the aftermath of a school shooting. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Next week, a citywide playwriting program for young people will present its first professional production of a full-length play.

Candles,” written by a high school freshman and presented by Philadelphia Young Playwrights, is about a tragic shooting at a high school. It premieres next week at the Arden Theatre in Old City with a professional director and union actors, making it eligible for a Barrymore Award.

The play takes place entirely in a classroom of a fictional high school called Edgewater, where the student newspaper club meets and spends most of its time goofing around.

The students bicker, banter, and find reasons to procrastinate.

“Can you guys stop being idiots for five seconds?” says an older student and mentor, played by Ang Bey, trying to quiet the rowdy room. She tells them that the paper is under threat: unless they shape up, the school board will no longer support student journalism.

But then tragedy hits. A shooter rampages through the school, killing 12 students and two teachers.

The rest of the play follows the emotional roller coaster of the survivors as they attempt to cope with grief and rage.

“They argue a lot. I really wanted to make this as authentic as possible,” said playwright Angelina DeMonte, a sophomore at Harriton High School in Lower Merion. She wrote much of “Candles” as a freshman.

“I’m a teenager. I go to high school. I know in that situation there would be a lot of arguing. Figuring out how to go about this, I wanted to include what the real journey would be for them,” she said.

Angelina DeMonte wrote “Candles,” a play about the aftermath of a school shooting. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

DeMonte started writing “Candles” two years ago, immediately after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.

She was just in junior high at the time. Like many young people, DeMonte felt frustrated by feelings of futility. What could an eighth grader do about national gun violence?

“It’s something I struggled with. I feel really voiceless when it comes to what I can do about it,” she said. “Playwriting has given me an outlet to say what I need to say and have my voice be heard.”

DeMonte was accepted into the residency program at Philadelphia Young Playwrights, or PYP. That provided her with a dramaturge and writing mentor to guide her through the process of writing a full-length script. The play runs about an hour and 15 minutes.

It’s a more ambitious script than PYP usually presents. The program partners with area schools to create writing projects in the classroom. Every year, it accepts submissions for its annual monologue and short-play festivals.

Though “Candles” is the first time PYP will give full production treatment to one of its students’ scripts, it is certainly not the first time it has produced a script about a school shooting.

“We received through our annual playwriting festival over 650 submissions for consideration for production. Easily 30 dealt with school shootings,” said executive director Lisa Nelson-Haynes. “We do not tell students what to write about. It’s very telling that it is so top-of-mind for so many of our kids. For them, it’s not if, but when.”

For DeMonte, writing “Candles” has been a passion project. Her characters rise to the moment, using their talents for journalism, poetry, and music to memorialize the dead and fight for change.

DeMonte even wrote a final song: a poem set to music that enables the students to move on from their grief.

“There’s nothing like it, being able to see everything in my head scribbled on a piece of paper, coming to life before my eyes,” she said. “Seeing what other people can bring to it to make it that much better.”

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