“How can I ever speak on fear when my uncle and parents risked their lives” getting to this country?

In South Florida’s Miami-Dade County – rich with Latino and Caribbean immigrants – these words might be spoken by teens. But it’s actually a line from a 50-minute play, I Am Me, that  revolves  around mental health and is being performed for 9th-grade students at local high schools throughout the county.  One of its central questions – how can you feel free to talk about your pain and mental troubles when your parents have sacrificed and suffered so much more? – is a familiar theme to young audiences.

The play has been a hit with students, perhaps because it so closely echoes their own experiences, including struggles with stress, anxiety, depression, and, especially, parents who don’t understand them – a familiar lament for teens everywhere.

“How do you explain therapy to Haitian parents?” one character asks. “You don’t. God is free,” comes the answer.

Another character describes her sadness about a friend who came out as a lesbian to her shocked and unaccepting parents. “There has never been a doubt in River’s mind that she is 100 percent not straight,” the character says. “But her family looks at her like a stranger walking through their home.”

The unfair responsibility put on teen girls is another popular theme. During a recent performance, a knowing line got big applause from females in the audience: “There are always eyes on us girls…. We’re made responsible for how the boys respond to us – and we’re supposed to ignore them.”

In the play, created by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the young stars confront issues including first-generation woes, poverty, societal pressure, still-forming identities, climate anxiety, parental expectations and discrimination. The $500,000 traveling show closed out its second year of production in February after being performed for some 18,000 students at 41 schools in the Miami-Dade district.

Mental health was selected as the focus after the Arsht Center workshopped potential ideas with more than 100 high schoolers, many of whom raised the specter of depression and mental health crises. “The students were clear that they really wanted to see themselves and their stories onstage – they didn’t want to see adults or a superhero,” said Jairo Ontiveros, vice president of education and community engagement at the Arsht Center.

Instead, the play features relatable characters voicing the common emotions of teenagers as a way to destigmatize mental health concerns and encourage them to speak up about their challenges – whether they involve friends, family, or school counselors, Ontiveros said.  

I Am Me at Miami High. Credit: Morgan Sophia Photography

To ensure students see themselves in the material, the monologues delivered by cast members include such familiar Miami scenarios as being an immigrant or the child of immigrants, experiencing poverty and eviction, fearing for refugee relatives who haven’t been heard from in a while, and trying to seem as perfect as their culture might demand. The script was collaboratively written by emerging Miami artists and is directed by award-winning Miami performer Teo Castellanos. The cast of six are all South Florida natives ages 23 to 32.

Angelina Tabares, a senior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High, saw the play with her 9th-to-12th grade theater class and found it inspiring. Before seeing it, she and other students felt “very alone, not supported,” she said. The performance – along with mental-health exercises later included in a classroom resource guide – sparked conversations that made her realize she and her classmates were struggling with the same issues.

“As people were talking about their stories, it’s as if someone put a light onto all of us,” and helped them realize that mental health “isn’t just something to push behind your mind,” Tabares said. “The conversations we had afterward, they felt different. I felt forever connected.”

Her epiphany was echoed by the experiences of the young actors in the play.

Dayron Leon, a 23-year-old Cuban American whose mother brought him to the U.S. when he was 8, plays a character named Juan, who says he can’t allow himself to feel sad given the immense sacrifices made by his immigrant parents. It took until he was in college for Leon himself to realize he often repressed feelings of anger and sadness because of this unspoken comparison.

“Mental health is taboo in my family as in many families. Being strong and never struggling is seen as a sign of strength. And it’s not,” Leon said. Had he been exposed to this production as a 9th-grader, “my life would be so different.”

I Am Me Student Workshop at Hialeah-Miami Lakes SH – Photo by Morgan Sophia Photography

The reaction from students at different schools has varied greatly, said Inez Barlatier, the Haitian American actor who plays IAMME, a character that embodies a sense of ancestral wisdom that everyone is part of a greater whole. During some productions this school year, students paid such rapt attention you could hear a pin drop, she said; in others, teens wept.

At a few schools, however, students were rowdy and misbehaved. Barlatier believes their discomfort with the topics kept them from engaging – a feeling she says she can relate to. When she was younger, she was bullied for her dark skin and adopted a defense mechanism of being passive-aggressive as a cover for her low self-esteem.

“Doing the play made those things come to the forefront and I had to deal with them,” she said. As a result, she added, she started therapy last June.        

Seeing the play motivated some students to have heart-to-heart talks with their parents. Tabares said the experience “allowed me to open up” and tell her parent she was anxious about attending college next year “because I’m worrying about leaving my family and community and not having a support system.” Her parents were sympathetic, she said, and glad to help her problem-solve. The play also helped her put her needs ahead of those of her boyfriend, Tabares added.

After the play was performed last year, a survey of 261 students showed the production was hitting its mark. “It helps people see that they are not alone and that others suffer from mental-health concerns,” said Ontiveros. Teachers were surveyed as well, and three-quarters said the production made them better able to respond to students’ mental health concerns.

Theater is an excellent vehicle for conveying mental-health messages, said Erin Michalak, PhD, a professor of psychiatry in the Mood Disorders Centre at the University of British Columbia. Michalak, who was not involved in the Miami production, has researched numerous delivery methods, including theater. She said her research found that the in-person contact that occurs in theater has a more profound impact than video and webinars, as long as the characters are authentic and convey accurate messages.

“In terms of addressing tricky things like mental-health stigma, it takes humans to personalize…and bring home those narratives,” Michalak said. “There’s incredible power in that.”

“Mental health is taboo in my family, as in many families. Being strong and never struggling is seen as a sign of strength. And it’s not.”

Dayron Leon, 23, actor in “I am Me”

During the play’s creation, mental-health professionals within the Miami-Dade County school system provided extensive input. “The key was to make sure it was age-appropriate, so we weren’t going to trigger kids,” said Sally Alayon, a district assistant superintendent involved with the collaboration. For example, the district felt a scene in the original script describing the death of a close relative was too intense, so it was rewritten to maintain the topic but refer to it in a more oblique way.

The play is part of a larger effort by Miami-Dade County’s school district – the fourth largest in the country, with 340,000 students – to creatively deliver mental-health messages to students and staff, Alayon said. Other ongoing programs involve partnerships with the Miami Marlins baseball and the Miami Heat basketball teams.

In the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Broward County, these collaborations took on greater urgency. Mental-health initiatives in the Miami school district secured more funding and were consolidated into a single Office of Mental and Health and Student Services.

When the Arsht Center approached the district the about a mental-health-themed play, the idea resonated. “What we really liked was that it wasn’t adults speaking,” said Lianie Cuba, the district’s executive director of mental health services. “It was the students’ own voices depicting their own struggles via the different characters.”

The resource guide – available to teachers, parents and students – includes numerous multimedia activities based on themes from the production. For a section on “identity,” for example, the teens can choose to write and share a monologue of their personal story, create dance movements with others that reflect their inner essence, or assemble an abstract self-portrait reflecting their various selves. 

Some 9th graders need support after watching the production to deal with the issues it brings up, said the district’s Alayon. Counselors in each school and occasionally mental-health coordinators from the district are available after each performance, she said.

“Teens are at critical development points, so opening up conversations like this is critical,” as is ensuring there are sufficient resources to aid everyone who needs it after seeing the show, Michalak said.

Students joking with each other afer The Arsht Center’s I Am Me was performed for students at Design Architecture Senior High School.
Photo by Taylor Brown

A 10-minute “talk back” session held after the end of the production encourages students to process whatever emotions have emerged. During some performances, students have shared intimacies in front of the entire audience, Barlatier said, such as revealing that they related to the characters who live in poverty or feel misunderstood. In those moments, Barlatier said, she asks other students who feel similarly to raise their hands in solidarity.

“Our hope is that they’re inspired to at least start talking about it,” she said. “Mental health is not going to go anywhere; it’s going to stay with you. It helps them to know that they’re not alone, and others feel this way, too.”

The cast also invited interested students to speak to them individually at the front of the stage. Some asked questions about breaking into acting; others could be overheard sharing personal stories about being bullied or arguing with their moms.

“If even one student relates to the performance, telling a cast member, ‘I’m inspired to start journaling or talking to others, that’s the most rewarding thing,” Leon said.

For some students, the performance seemed to have a deep impact, said Colleen Mahoney, Tabares’ theater teacher.

“One kid in class is out and gay; he identified with the play because his parents are religious and conservative,” making his home life difficult, Mahoney said. The student later told her he felt the in-class conversations helped to give him the support he needed.

“His relationship with his parents is much better because he was better able to weather that storm [with] the strength and support from the talk sessions in the class,” she said.

The class discussions after the play created a place of support for all the students, and sent a powerful message, Tabares said. It was “you’re not in this alone. We’re here to support you and love you and let you vent and hear your concerns.” 

Type of work:

Meryl Davids Landau is an award-winning independent journalist based in South Florida who writes about health and science. She is also a novelist.