An allegorical play about a flower going in search of her roots along the U.S.-Mexico border has earned a Cardiff teenager statewide recognition in the 37th annual Plays by Young Writers competition this week.
Ana Cabrera, 15, wrote one of four scripts by California teen playwrights that won the annual competition produced by San Diego’s Playwrights Project. This year’s contest drew more than 275 scripts from writers ages 11 to 18. Cabrera and two other playwrights will have their play fully produced with costumes and scenery. A fourth play co-written by two Bay area teens will receive a staged reading. Cabrera is the only winner from San Diego County.
Cabrera’s play is called “Petunia.” Petunia is a flower, but her character represents a child of mixed heritage growing up with her mother on one side of the border while her father is on the other side. Petunia’s struggle with her ethnicity and identity leads her to go in search of her heritage in order to establish deeper roots and thrive.
Cabrera, a sophomore at San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas, is also of mixed heritage. Her father was born and raised in Puerto Rico and came to the continental U.S. to attend college. Her mother, who is from New York, is White. Cabrera is very proud of her Puerto Rican heritage and is a member of the Spanish Honors Club at SDA. But because of her light skin tone, people usually presume Cabrera is White rather than Latina.
“It’s very clear to say I’m White-presenting and that has had an impact on how I feel about the two different parts of my culture. I’ve noticed bias in other people because of that,” she said. “Ethnic and racial identity struggles are very complex, and it can go both ways. Your outward appearance says so much about you, but it’s not the whole story.”
Cabrera discovered her passion for writing in fifth grade at Ada Harris Elementary School in Cardiff. That’s when she met her writing mentor, Aleta Barthell, who is a teaching artist for Playwrights Project and founder of the Kids Act youth theater education program at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.
“I fell in love with the whole writing process,” she said. “We’d do little experiences where a character would write letter to themselves. I found it fascinating because I always liked having conversations in my head and playing out situations. Writing took it to another level.”
Last year, Cabrera was working on a monologue with Barthell at a Playwrights Project summer camp when the idea for “Petunia” was born. They started talking about nature and Cabrera thought about the petunias growing in her family’s backyard. The flowers had speckles on their petals, which reminded Cabrera of the freckles on her face, which led to a discussion on both Cabrera’s heritage and that of the flower.
This year, she decided to continue developing the idea by taking Petunia on a physical journey to reconnect with her heritage. Cabrera said she didn’t identify which country Petunia was living in, the U.S. or Mexico, or which parent had Mexican heritage, because her play is about identity, not nationality.
“Petunia has two main friends, Paco and Lila, who help her take this physical journey to the other side to talk to talk to her parents and figure out who she is and who she wants to be, regardless of what society might feel about her,” Cabrera said. “I think I wanted to make it a physical journey because a lot of kids who might be going though a struggle with their identity feel like running away.”
Plays By Young Writers contest judge Peter Cirino, who is the founder of TuYo Theatre and a faculty member at San Diego State University, praised the maturity of Cabrera’s writing saying it covers a “tremendously deep concept … casting flowers as the people of a border region and showing how human nature is in a constant state of migration, just as the blooms are.”
The other California students who won this year’s Plays By Young Writers Contest are Declan Kallberg, 13, of Temecula; Jacqueline Vellandi, 17, of Orange County; and co-writers Yaseen Issa and Ahmed Al Hashimi, both 13, of Hillsdale. Cabrera, Kallberg and Vellandi will receive full productions of their plays and Issa and Hashimi will get a staged reading.
Kallberg, who also earned a production in last year’s contest with his pandemic-themed play “Dub Thee Fear,” won again with his new script “Boxed In.” It’s set decades after the pandemic where people still isolate themselves in their homes, where two friends struggle to connect via virtual chats. Vellandi’s play “Reverie” is about three students who escape their mundane reality through a collective daydream. Issa and Hashimi’s play “The Jealous Soccer Ball” is about a schoolyard soccer ball that feels jealous and lonely when kids ignore him in favor of his basketball friend.
The plays will be filmed for streaming, but there will be three public screenings presented at the Museum of Photographic Arts on Jan. 22, 28 and 29. The film will be available for free streaming to schools Jan. 24 to Feb. 6 and the public can purchase tickets by visiting playwrightsproject.org.
The contest drew 276 play submissions this year from writers statewide. The top 43 scripts were chosen by contest coordinator Rachael VanWormer. Then she and Playwrights Project executive producer Cecelia Kouma narrowed that list down to 10 finalists that were critiqued by the final judges, including Cirino, Ahmed Kenyatta Dents (director of venue experience and artistic associate at San Diego Repertory Theatre), Josefina López and Annie Weisman (award-winning playwrights and Plays by Young Writers alumnae), and George Yé (Mesa College Theatre faculty and creative artist). The winners were then selected by VanWormer, Kouma and Yé.