It had been a long day by the time I got to St Ann’s for the 9:30pm showing of Rob Salerno’s First Day Back. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear upbeat music as I walked in. Not what I exactly expected from a show about the first day back to school after 14-year-old Ollie killed himself following months of being bullied for being gay.
The performance started with Rob Salerno as the visual arts teacher facilitating a safe space for students to talk about Ollie’s death. Then, with the help of key costume pieces, Salerno became Ollie’s fellow classmates, friends and tormentors. His characters are distinct and well played. At first glance the characters reflect the high-school stereotypes, with the jock, the drama kid, the geek, the artist and the school president. But for the most part Salerno develops his characters beyond the stereotypes.
The youth’s thoughts are complex. Their emotions feel real but not overbearing. Through theatre Salerno demonstrates the value of listening to youth.
Most importantly though, Ollie is humanized instead of victimized. He’s hopeful, smart and a big dreamer. This highlights the tragedy of his death, and reminds us that kids (like adults) know their own lives better than anyone else. We should listen to them.
On a personal note, I am hugely thankful that Rob Salerno took the time to create First Day Back. I grew up afraid to tell my peers that I had moms who were lesbians until grade 7, and I knew youth who killed themselves in high school. There’s a sense of relief for me when these issues of violence are spoken about respectfully and openly.
But as the big applause at the end of the performance proved, I think most people would appreciate First Day Back. Go see this show.
For more information about First Day Back, visit www.tenfootpole.ca.