San Diego playwright writes new work humanizing youth struggling with drug addiction

It was not difficult for the playwright Christian Sainte-Croix to understand how to concentrate his last piece, “The Pros and Cons of Feeding Stray Cats”, which follows two young people in transition who meet at a weekend program for teenagers arrested for drug offenses. During their weekend job, they find two stray cats who are hungry and befriend each other while tending to the cats. The piece was commissioned by the Playwrights Project, in partnership with SAY San Diego and raising the youth. After hearing about the work of Sainte-Croix from another playwright, they contacted him for this project.

“After seeing local readings, I also fell in love with Christian’s writing. When this opportunity arose with SAY to support young people struggling with substance use disorder, I immediately reached out to Christian! His work is sensitive, thoughtful, with a rhythm and fluidity that catches you off guard and draws you deep into the hearts of the characters. Exactly the sentiment we seek with our work,” said Cecelia Kouma, executive director of the Playwrights Project, a non-profit organization amplifying the voices of traditionally marginalized people, who feel invisible and unheard, by writing for theatre. “This workshop production of ‘The Pros and Cons of Feeding Stray Cats’ is a chance to share the magic of theater and the talents of Christian with young people who have struggled with substance use disorder, to help them to see that they are not alone, they are worthy of love, and to encourage them to connect and seek support.We also hope to encourage audiences of all ages to recognize that everyone struggles, to open their hearts and not despise those who are different from them.

Growing up in Sacramento, St. Croix saw people struggling with addiction and recovery, whether they were people he went to school with or family members. Through collaborative conversations on this production, they chose to focus on substance use, addiction, and programs available to youth that are alternatives to detention. The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the City Heights Performance Annex, connected to the City Heights/Weingart Library (admission is free, but tickets are required and can be reserved at brownpapertickets.com/event/5595492).

St. Croix, whose award-winning plays have been performed nationally and internationally (and the script for his “Monsters of the American Cinema” was added as a reading and study assignment for one of the courses in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University in 2019), lives in San Diego and has taken the time to talk about this latest play and how he hopes others will come away with a more empathetic understanding of addiction. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: You were featured in “Role Calling: People to Watch” from American Theater Magazine and your plays “Monsters of the American Cinema” and “Zach” won the Carlo Annoni International Theater Prize and the Young-Howze Theater Prize for Best Comedy Writing in 2021, respectively. You are currently preparing for the opening of your latest play, “The Pros and Cons of Feeding Stray Cats”. How did you come to order this piece?

A: I was approached by Cecelia Kouma, [executive director] with the playwright’s project. Their goal, as I understand it, is to empower people of all ages and backgrounds to express stories through theater. She offered me to write the play and we discussed what we wanted it to be. Speaking to Cecelia, she shared the concerns of people she has worked with — working with incarcerated people, who are in underserved communities — and what was fresh in her mind one of the days we were talking, c t was that there were very few alternatives to detention for minors who were arrested for drug-related offences. We decided for this play to focus less on addiction and more on the benefits of alternative programs, which provide children with options that are an alternative to detention.

Q: What inspired you in creating this piece?

A: Conversations with Cecelia gave me a framework. Both characters are people of color: the female lead is queer and black, and the male character is Latinx. It was really important to me. It’s important to all of my pieces that my characters reflect the community we live in, the community I’m involved in, the community I see, so I knew right away that I would put two kids of color. One downside to the community that I mentioned earlier where I grew up and where we were taught to go to school and then work was that addiction was everywhere, so much so that it was almost normalized. You knew all the names of the street chemists, you knew the names of all the people recovering from addiction, there were several cases of addiction and recovery within my own family. Once I grew up a bit and started working as a youth worker, some of the kids who came to the shelter were also struggling with addiction, so that was a big part of my life. I was able to draw the stories of these two children from this experience and the knowledge I had since my family members were going to recover. I was able to use it to shape this fictitious program that the two children are in and to take inspiration from my upbringing.

Q: What type of research led to your preparation for writing this piece? Were there things you learned that surprised you or that you didn’t know before?

A: I didn’t have to do a lot of research. I was able to learn some things from my own experiences. I researched different programs for young people struggling with substance abuse. I traveled the country to see what different places were doing. One of the things that I found surprising was that some of these programs, although well-intentioned, had very harsh ways of directly scaring children. I was a little tempted to write about this kind of program, but I realized that it would detract from the intention of the show with some of the best programs that actually associate children with animals, like caring for horses or volunteering with animals. shelters. I took all of that with this fictional program I created for the show where kids go to different neighborhoods and one day it’s cleaning the beach, another day it’s serving breakfast to the elderly. I was able to take different ideas from the different programs I had looked at and kind of put them into one.

Q: How would you describe your perspective on these issues before this commission? What now, after writing this play?

A: I am, and always have been, a “people first” type of person and that was my take on addiction. When the addiction has a name and you went to school with them and you know they loved “My Little Pony” and all those other personal details about them, you don’t really think of them as struggling people with an addiction – you think of them as people. That’s always been how I felt about people recovering from addiction, people with mental health issues. I think sometimes we do these people and ourselves a disservice by labeling them drug addicts and depriving them of their humanity and everything that makes them theirs. That’s always how I thought about it before the commission. I would say my position is pretty much the same after the commission. I’m grateful to have been able to contribute some of my thoughts on putting people first, in the production and in the script. It was very important to me that these characters be seen as people first and not as some of their vices, not as two “mistakes” that correct each other, but as two teenagers with their own desires, dreams, feelings, their little quirks, the little things that make them.

Q: What kind of difference do you think it makes to take that kind of “people first” perspective?

A: I think it humanizes people. I think it could bring more empathy and it really starts with language and how you describe people. Throughout this discussion, I’ve corrected myself from saying “addict” to saying “people struggling with addiction.” I think that feeling of controlling yourself and others when they reduce someone to dependency, overall, can be helpful in getting some of those people the help they need and becoming more of a person capable of providing this assistance.

Q: What do you mean by “The pros and cons”? What do you hope people will understand about youth substance use and the ways we achieve it, after seeing your play?

A: I want them to fully understand that people with addictions are people first. I want them to consider alternatives to juvenile detention and how they can support or even start programs like this, how they can do their part to help people like this in their own communities. No one wants to grow up to be a person struggling with addiction. The dreams that people have are important. Everyone wants to be something, and I think this can help people focus on the humanity of those struggling with addiction and remind them that they are people first.