Latoya Rhodes, a 28-year old Utah resident, is passionate about finding a proactive way to reduce the bullying that takes place in today’s society. By participating in Plan-B Theatre Company’s world premier of Different=Amazing, she is hoping to have the opportunity to do just that. Having endured bullying herself, Latoya hopes that through playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett‘s 45-minute compilation of scenes and monologues, she and castmate Tyson Baker will be able to connect with students and adults through the true stories of Utah’s own elementary school victims. Although Rhodes anticipates the upcoming school tour will have an impact on the students who get to experience the production, she sees the play’s message as one that parents and teachers also need to hear. And it’s a message she was happy to share with me as well.
UTBA: Do you think bullying has changed in the last 20 or 30 years?
Rhodes: Yes. It has gotten worse. In my day, I was bullied. Everyone had their own experiences with bullying, but some were more aggressive. My experiences were more aggressive. I looked different, and that was hard, but I could come home and get away from it. Now with the progression of technology, bullying is way more aggressive. Kids get awful Facebook posts about killing themselves, and there is no way to escape it.
UTBA: Give me an overview of the show. What kind of theatrical elements does it employ?
Rhodes: This production is about being bullied or about being a part of the bullying. It is a play with a series of scenes and monologues about bullying.
UTBA: Is there a central set of characters, or is it a collection of stories?
Rhodes: Tyson and I tell the stories of a bunch of different bully experiences. All the stories are true, and all of them happened to Utah kids.
UTBA: How did you get involved in this Plan-B Theatre project?
Rhodes: In 2010, I got to be a part of a variety show called Different=Amazing put together by Plan-B to raise funds for the Human Rights Education Center of Utah. Some of the pieces from that show are in what we are doing now. Someone suggested to Matt that he take it to elementary schools. It’s been four years since then, so I kind of feel like I’ve been a part of it since 2010.
UTBA: Do you get to play both sides? Do you sometimes represent the bully and at other times represent the victim?
Rhodes: There’s this one scene called “Get Up Again,” which Matt actually included in the 2010 fundraiser. Tyson is the main person that is telling the story about his experience. My character is called “The Helper.” I get to play the bully, the friend that he kind of talks to, and the crowd that circles around to see what is going to happen to this boy. The director [Jerry Rapier] is always reminding me, “Latoya, make sure each character is different.”
UTBA: What did you do to prepare for the roles you are playing?
Rhodes: Have you seen the documentary Bully? I watched it to prepare for this and because I was a victim of bullying myself. It was heartbreaking. Teachers really didn’t do anything about the bullying they saw. And kids are actually doing the things they say they will do. Kids are dying.
UTBA: What kind of impact do you see this show having?
Rhodes: I would hope that it will encourage students to have the courage to stand up for themselves and for other students who they see being bullied. It is one thing to be bullied, but it’s another to see someone else being a bully and to just watch it. You are a part of it when you just let it happen. I hope it will encourage adults to be more proactive—to have the courage to approach the students. There are a lot of students that won’t talk to a teacher about bullying because they are afraid of getting in trouble or just making the bullying worse. Teachers, principals, even ground duty people need to realize that bullying is not just kids being kids. Instead of saying that, adults should really listen to what kids are saying to each other.
UTBA: How is this show different than traditional productions?
Rhodes: In this show, Jerry always tells us to be storytellers—to include the kids. Instead of being the traditional play with the fourth wall, we get to actually talk to the kids and let them be involved instead of isolating them. But we’re going to be talking to them directly, saying, “This story is not only about you, but it is about us, and we’re all experiencing this together.”
UTBA: What is the most emotional part for you?
Rhodes: There is a monologue called, “It’s not Safe Still.” It is about this 11-year-old girl who is very different. People don’t understand her differences. She has this specific bully who physically assaults her, and because of all this built up trauma, she becomes numb and isolated. I remember reading that piece, and I just sat there for a moment, because it brought me back to when I was in elementary school. I was bullied, and when that happens you come to a point where you have to become numb and put up this wall. There are some elements in there where I think, “That’s exactly what I felt or exactly what I was going through.” It triggers some pent up anger that I can kind of tap.
UTBA: Does being a part of something like this impact you off stage?
Rhodes: It gives me a kind of hope. Instead of us sitting back and talking about it – how things are getting worse, but we aren’t doing anything about it – it’s a topic I’m super passionate about. We’re doing something about it. Being a product of change. Hopefully inspiring kids to be a part of solving this epidemic. It’s being a part of hopefully seeing a decrease in bullying in the future, at least in Utah.
UTBA: Have you had a chance to share this production with any students yet?
Rhodes: Our first show will be on February 22nd. It is free to anyone who wants to attend.
UTBA: And then you will tour Utah schools? How many schools are scheduled for the tour?
Rhodes: 34 schools in Davis and Salt Lake County.
UTBA: Is it too late to schedule a school for the tour?
Rhodes: I’m not sure. But it never hurts to ask. If you are interested in having us come to your school, go to the Plan-B website and follow the email link to see if there are any spaces left.
UTBA: What would you like to share with the community about bullying?
Rhodes: To be more proactive about stopping the bullying. To listen to kids and really take it seriously. I had a conversation with a woman who said, “Everyone goes through bullying. They just have to get tough skin.” If we start thinking that way, it’s just going to get worse. Bullying is an epidemic now, and people are dying because of this. Even listening to those who are bullying other people is important. They also need to be heard, because they are hurting, too.