Midtown: Community

Midtown Muse: Contest encourages young people to explore ‘living differently’

Amanda Larsen’s friend and mentor knew the teenager had seen the kind of trauma that leaves indelible impressions of death and dying. So she suggested Larsen write it out as a coping mechanism.

“She definitely had more insight than I did,” said Larsen, 19, who graduated from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh and is now studying nursing at Lynchburg College in Virginia. “It was a very good suggestion on her part.”

Larsen won The Justice Theater Project’s first short story contest, a special feature of the theater’s production of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The play is an intimate, end-of-life portrait of college professor Morrie Schwartz’s legacy of love and lifelong learning as told by his mentee, Mitch Albom.

In January, the Raleigh theater invited people ages 17 to 21 to submit a nonfiction piece exploring “living differently” after being confronted with death or the death of someone they loved.

Larsen’s essay, “Now He Walks With Me,” recounts her experience and the after-effects of an EMS training ride-along a year earlier when she watched a 9-year-old boy die after being struck by a car.

“I definitely wanted to express that it’s never so much about forgetting him or moving on, but it’s about just accepting that he’s a part of my life and letting something good come of that,” said Larsen, a former member of the Quail Ridge Writer’s Collective, a teen writing group.

Larsen shared her winning story during a Feb. 6. pre-show discussion, “Living Differently: ‘Living’ at the End of Life.”

“It was amazing,” said Larsen, who won $100 for her story which will be published in an anthology along with the 10 other submissions. “It allowed me to express a lot of the feelings I hadn’t let out to people before; turning emotional poetry into fluid storytelling.

“It led to a lot of discussion that made people interpret the play in a much different light than they would just watching the play without any discussion,” Larsen noted. “It became less of a play and more of a lesson.”

That’s because The Justice Theater Project’s shows remain relevant – even to the extent of requests for repeat performances. It’s testament, really, to our stagnation as communities and a country in solving social, economic and political injustices that repeat history.

“Tuesdays with Morrie” is the second of four encore shows in the theater’s 2015-16 “Best of JTP” season, which reprises performances to bring new discussions around racism, the death penalty, immigration reform, fair wages, equality and health care.

The season opened in October with “A Lesson Before Dying.” “Tuesdays with Morrie” continues through Feb. 21 at St. Francis of Assisi on Leesville Road in North Raleigh. In April, the theater project will present “Still ... Life: An Exploration of a Killing State - North Carolina,” and fan-favorite “Ragtime” is set for June.

Affordable health care was the backdrop when the theater first presented “Tuesdays with Morrie” in 2011. This time, Morrie’s disdain of “more is good, more is good” connects us to what’s happening now as we delve knee-deep into the money-laden system of electing our next president.

“There’s something very smart about what Morrie is trying to teach Mitch,” said Deb Royals, artistic director for The Justice Theater Project. “We, in turn, are taught, and I think we’re taught where we’re at.”

Quoting Morrie, Royals said, “Be compassionate and take responsibility for each other. If we only learned those lessons, this world would be so much better a place.

“It’s applicable no matter what age you are and no matter where you are in life,” she said, turning to Larsen’s short story. “Take responsibility for each other: That’s what she grasped at a very young age ... and that’s very powerful.

“It’s what Morrie challenges all of us to do.”