A “reporter” in a film noir trench coat appeared at the front of the stage and told the audience: “The stories you are about to see are all true. They’re based on incidents that really happened to John Adams students.”
That was the opening of Driving Through the Decades, a play about the dangers of driving under the influence, written by 8th grade students at John Adams Middle School (JAMS) and presented for three performances on May 30.
Like many current Broadway shows, this was a revival. The director, JAMS drama teacher Marcia McCarthy, told the Mirror that Driving Through the Decades was conceived two years ago by the then-current 8th grade class, with the help of a grant from SAFE MOVES, a nonprofit organization that promotes traffic safety.
After a one-year hiatus (JAMS had no drama group last year due to budget limitations), McCarthy and her students resurrected the play for presentation this year.
“We’ve added to it and refined it,” says McCarthy. “These students know the play because they originally saw it when they were in 6th grade.”
McCarthy’s son Jim, who works in construction, led the stage crew in building the sets, creating the sound effects and customizing an old red Honda Accord (“I took off the top to make it a convertible”) which appears on stage throughout the play, representing the cars in which characters drive.
At the 11 a.m. performance, pre-show speaker Captain Bart Eirich of the Santa Monica Fire Department’s paramedic unit reminded the students that traffic safety was a very serious subject.
The audience broke out into applause, whistles and cheers as the curtain opened to reveal a 1950s “sock hop” with wide-skirted girls and black-leather-jacketed boys dancing to “Rock Around the Clock.”
In the successive series of vignettes running from the 1960s to the 1990s, teenagers drank forbidden intoxicants, and in one case, partook of “little yellow pills.” The results included a car crash on railroad tracks, a DUI for a drunken teen couple, a daughter trying to keep her inebriated mother from driving and a horrific tale of a girl who caused her own death and the death of another car’s passengers.
Kids clapped along with the songs, whistled at ’60s miniskirts and hooted at a “stoner” character. But the snickers and cheers gave way to gasps as the play portrayed ruin and tragedy in the wake of irresponsible use of intoxicants.
“Styles may change and music may change,” the reporter-narrator concluded. “But teenagers still have the same decisions to make.”
After the finale, in which the cast took their bows to the tune of “Staying Alive,” some cast members talked with the Mirror about the experience.
Alex Bollinger, age 14, who played the reporter, said, “We changed some of the dialogue around. Some of it wasn’t up to date, so we put our own take on it.”
Bollinger said that she listens to “oldies” and is familiar with many of the songs used in the play. Another 8th grader, Samuel Harwood, 14, acted as “music consultant,” culling the play’s music from lists of the most popular songs from each decade.
Alexis Cruz, 13, who played a traffic cop, commented on the audience. “I noticed a lot of laughing at first, but I don’t think this is a play to laugh about. It gets people to think about the real dangers.”
McCarthy said SAFE is happy with the work she and her students have done. In her opinion, “nobody else has done anything of this caliber.” Her hope is that she can get funding to stage another play next year, on another issue of concern to teens.