Family Portraits: Gina Dukes

There is a famous quote attributed to German pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

These days, especially with the recent spate of teen suicides, it can seem like no one cares about fellow human beings. Enter Gina Dukes, a heterosexual high-school teenager who has written a play about the plight of lesbian girls halfway across the world. Her play, “God Makes No Mistakes,” was selected from 715 submissions to the 2010 Annual Playwriting Festival. Now in its 23rd year, Philadelphia Young Playwrights’ New Voices: Workshop Productions gives middle and high-school playwrights the opportunity to see their creations presented in a professional workshop. As part of the showcase, the student playwrights are at the center of a two-week rehearsal and production process in which they interact with the director, actors and stage crew, culminating in a staging of their work. PGN spoke to this remarkable student between rehearsals.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. GD: I’m a high-school student at Science Leadership Academy. I’m in the 11th grade and I’ve been 17 for almost two weeks now.

PGN: What sign does that make you? GD: I’m a Libra.

PGN: So you’re about balance and fairness: That makes sense. Where are you originally from? GD: I’m from Philadelphia.

PGN: Tell me about your family. GD: Most of my family is here in Philadelphia, though I have a history of relatives from the South. I’m the oldest of four, with a little brother and two sisters. My step-dad is an artist and painter and my mom home-schools my little brother.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? GD: I was really into books as a young child. I remember always having a passion for writing. I wrote my first book when I was about 5. It was five pages with one sentence on each page. I was really proud of it.

PGN: What was it about? GD: The five senses, one page for each sense.

PGN: What made you write your current play? GD: I came across an article about the situation that homosexuals face in Nigeria and it really got my attention. I decided to do some research on the subject.

PGN: Are you a member of the LGBT community? GD: I’m not a member, but I am an ally. At my school, we try to stop negative views — well, not views, but homophobic comments. So if someone says something homophobic, we encourage people to step up and say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” I think it’s important to support people who may be different.

PGN: I think it’s a great thing that someone would step up to defend a cause that’s not necessarily their cause. Especially with the climate in schools right now with bullying being a big issue, what made you decide to focus attention on an LGBT issue? Were you raised to be progressive or did you pick it up in school? GD: I guess it was just me and the things that I believe in. I have very strong values and after reading that article and about what happens to lesbians in Soweto*, I felt it was such an injustice that I wanted to write about it.

PGN: At school, are you conscious of any antigay incidents? GD: No, at my school we’re really accepting of all types of people.

PGN: I expect that you’re aware of the recent suicides from antigay bullying. GD: I heard about the man who killed himself after a video was posted. I thought that situation was just tragic; it’s such a shame that someone would do that to him.

PGN: What do you say when you stop someone from making a homophobic comment and they want to know why you care? GD: I tell them that I care because I don’t think you should treat people differently because they are different from you. Everyone has different beliefs and values and I believe that we should all try to get along. You shouldn’t discriminate against people because they’re different. I’m not a fan of discrimination.

PGN: Have you ever faced discrimination? GD: Yes, when I was like, 12, I was really tall — the tallest girl in my class — and that made me feel extremely awkward. Because of my height, I also weighed more than the other girls and that made me even more self-conscious. It was a tough time.

PGN: What do you want to be when you grow up? GD: The answer to that question is always changing. I’m really into horticulture right now. I would love to own a tree nursery one day.

PGN: What is it that you like about working with trees and plants? GD: I think it’s a really cool process to see something grow from a seed into a beautiful flower. This past summer I was working with University City Green, so I’ve been working with trees every day and watching the leaves grow. I can identify so many species by just the leaves now. I’m a tree nerd.

PGN: Tell me about a favorite relative. GD: Hmm, I guess I’ll talk about my little brother. He’s 11 years old and almost as tall as me, and I’m 5-foot-6. He’s so much fun: He comes up to me and tells me cute little stories and jokes. Like the other day, he walked up and said, “Gina, what does a glass say when it’s about to fall from the sky? I’m about to be broke!” It’s just silly and makes me laugh.

PGN: Random question: What was your favorite TV show as a kid? GD: Well, my favorite TV show growing up was and still is my favorite show: “Arthur” on Channel 12. He’s a cartoon aardvark who’s really into books and covers a lot of social topics as well. I love that show.

PGN: [Laughs.] I’m sorry, I keep asking you to tell me about things from when you were young, but I forget you’re still young! So what’s your favorite class? GD: Right now I’d have to say it’s between English and algebra II.

PGN: What’s a song that you’re embarrassed to admit you like? GD: It would probably have to be this song — I don’t know who sang it, but it was in the movie “School Daze” — I think it’s called “That Butt.”

PGN: I love that song, it’s actually “Da’Butt” by a group called E.U. — Experience Unlimited. They were a part of that whole “Go-Go Beat” sound from Washington, D.C. See, I’m not that old: I’m up on go-go. GD: [Laughs.] You are!

PGN: So what was your first contact with Young Playwrights? GD: A woman named Kate McGrath from Playwrights came to my English class and had us do a writing exercise. Then, every student in the class stood up and we had to act out a scene that we had previously written. We also had to stand like statues and let the other person look at us and we couldn’t move. After that exercise, she talked to us about playwriting and the process and I thought it was really interesting. I also thought, wow, this is going to be hard.

PGN: Did you have other ideas for a play that you didn’t choose? GD: Another idea I had was about a couple who was arguing. It was more of a relationship drama about cheating and not getting love.

PGN: Being so young, where do you draw your inspiration? GD: I draw my inspiration from a lot of different places: people that I’ve talked to; I like to read a lot of blogs and some of them are really interesting and give me ideas. I don’t watch TV much, so I guess I’d say I draw inspiration from the world around me.

PGN: Aside from the situation in your play, what are two subjects you think are important? GD: Today in my engineering class I had to do a presentation on the water crisis in the world right now. It’s not something a lot of people take serious because it doesn’t directly affect them, but it’s a really serious issue and I feel people should start to pay attention to it and learn more about it. And there’s also an epidemic of rape going on in the African Congo and I feel there’s not enough attention being put on it. I think people should learn about those two issues.

PGN: I just saw a movie called “Tapestries of Hope,” about the work of Betty Makoni and the Girl Child Network. In Zimbabwe, the men believe and often are told by the elder “healers” that sex with a virgin girl will cure them of AIDS. They believe that the blood produced by raping a virgin will cleanse the virus from the infected person’s blood. Even a 2-year-old girl was raped by her father to try to cure him. They are trying to get the word out and convince the healers that it’s just a myth, so these men will stop the practice. Bishop Desmond Tutu, from South Africa, recently spoke out against the same problem in South Africa. GD: I heard about that! It’s horrible. I read one story of a man who had sex with a baby to cure his AIDS.

PGN: As a young person who seems interested in more than just the latest video game, what do you think we need to do to get younger people involved in the world around them? GD: I think that a lot of kids are interested in what goes on beyond their immediate world, but we need people who will listen, actually listen without judgment. I think they’d find that we do care about a lot of things. Another thing we need are people like my teacher Mr. Brock. He exposes our class to so many different things. It just takes someone to say something interesting and, even if it doesn’t look like the kids are interested, tell them about it anyway because it might open their minds a little. There are some things that we don’t know, a lot of things actually, and I learned so much stuff last year just from him telling us things we hadn’t even heard about.

PGN: So you read the article about lesbians in Nigeria and decided to write about it? GD: Yes, it was the inspiration for the script. The characters in my play are Nigerian, so I also had to do research about Nigeria to learn more about the culture and the language. I use some Yoruba words in the script.

PGN: I know, I read your play and I actually thought that you were from the country. My first 10 questions I had for you were about life in Nigeria … GD: [Laughs.] No, I’ve never been there. The Internet is a powerful tool!