It started off as a play to address a nationwide issue of police brutality and the killings of unarmed, young black men.
But when white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville this summer, Monticello High School junior Josh St. Hill knew that what happened in his own backyard and that placed the city in the national spotlight needed to be a part of his play, as well.
Titled “A King’s Story,” St. Hill’s story focuses on the death of fictional character James King, a black teenager in Charlottesville who is shot and killed by a white police officer. In the play, King is unarmed and carrying a small amount of marijuana.
The story follows what has become an all too similar cycle of events: initial news reports of the shooting, finger pointing, character analysis and pundit screaming matches on TV news — was he an honor roll student, was he dealing the pot that was found on him, labeling him as a thug, etc.
The play focuses on how a community responds to politically explosive and violent events, the kind that have rattled Charlottesville, as well as cities such as Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and Cleveland.
But the main focus of the story is on the character of Elijah — played by St. Hill — who was King’s best friend. He struggles to keep calm and not to let his emotions get the best of him as he navigates a school setting also struggling with the sudden death of a classmate.
The theme of the play falls in line with others performed — and written — by Monticello drama students, where they are often given a voice to shine a light on subjects that are personal and meaningful to them.
“People are always asking, ‘why are you guys doing the same plays?’ And our answer to that then was, ‘because it’s still happening,’” St. Hill said. “And then July 8 rolls around, Aug. 12 rolls around and we’re like, ‘see? It’s still happening.’”
“Nobody wants bad things to keep happening,” he added. “Nobody wants to see somebody die, but to see that happening in your own backyard, I feel like it’s just going to open up people’s eyes even more to understand the message and the rawness of this play.”
In between scenes, St. Hill inserted hip-hop to directly address the audience about what just happened on stage, expressing the message of the play in another artistic format.
“I try to interpret music into this because I know sometimes if people can’t get it when you’re just talking in the scene, they might get it through a lyric that’s hitting them because I know a lot of people that operate that way,” he said.
St. Hill has been rapping for years, influenced by artists such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Tupac and André 3000. He’s taken part in cyphers between MHS and Albemarle High students, as well.
St. Hill and his peers hope those who see the show can see the subject matter through their perspective.
“I just want them to take away that it hurts when you see people like you not being treated the same way as other people who don’t look like you,” said Kayla Scott, a junior at Monticello who plays the role of Lisa, James’ girlfriend. Throughout the play, she’s able to show the nostalgia in James’ absence while being a critical voice to Elijah’s reactions and outbursts.
“You’re a citizen of this country and you’re supposed to be protected, but you feel like the people who are supposed to protect you are not protecting you,” Scott said. “So, I just want everybody to know that we need to be on the same page. We don’t feel equal.”
Giving MHS drama students a voice has been a mission for Madeline Michel, the school’s theater teacher. In the past, her students have put on other shows dealing with racial issues, including “Memphis” and “In the Heights.”
Just last year, they staged a production of a now former student’s play that focused on the controversies of buildings and other landmarks that bear the names of Confederate leaders.
“I let them do what they need to do until they need me,” Michel said of the writing and creative process.
St. Hill, who was the lead in last year’s musical, came to Michel with the idea of a play chronicling the ensuing events and fallout of police brutality, but Michel didn’t expect it to take place in Charlottesville.
“That’s what was on his mind, you know? You have to let kids write about what they care about, and what their fears and dreams are,” Michel said.
As the summer went on and she and other students met with St. Hill to go over drafts of his play and fine-tune it, the real-life tensions in Charlottesville made their way into the final product.
“For me to just sit and be silent because I feel some type of way for it doesn’t make sense to me,” St. Hill said. “I feel like I have to say something. I feel like I have to spread some type of message to people — or else, what am I doing?”
Monticello senior Amaya Wallace is making her directorial debut for “A King’s Story.” One of the biggest challenges for her early on was making sure she was able to communicate the message of the play to the cast in the most meaningful way possible.
“I know Josh and everyone else in the cast is really passionate about this and passionate about educating people and telling people how they feel, and I think this goes more than politics,” Wallace said. “It goes to human emotion and just being scared, being worried, but also being empowered.”
The subject matter is heavy and at times can be uncomfortable, but that’s what the students wanted. For St. Hill, it was important to present the play’s message in its truest form.
“There’s a lot of shows and things to tackle issues like this, but I feel like at times they’re sugarcoated, or at times they’re like played down just a little bit so they can appeal to maybe little kids [who] will be seeing it or something like that,” he said. “But us, it has to be raw. It has to be real. You can’t downplay anything. This is what’s happening and this how we’re handling it.”
“A King’s Story” will be performed Wednesday for the MHS community. Michel said she thinks every administrator in the county school division should see the play to “better understand what kids in high school are thinking.”
The public showing will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 3 at MHS. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. The donations will go toward scholarships within the drama department.
St. Hill hopes the play can change people’s minds on the subjects the script tackles.
“If I can do that, I’ll be happy,” he said. “Even if I can change one mind and everybody else hates me, I’ll still be happy. I can still go home and sleep at night.”