California History Plays for Young People

Three plays, three skits, and a “Sunday Afternoon at a Gold Mine” that are written to be used by fourth grade. These are published in a spiral-bound 8 ½ by 11 inch format, so that a teacher can copy whichever material she wishes for her class. There are also instructions and suggestions for the teacher, especially for working with drama in a classroom.

Why Drama in Teaching History 1
Please Copy These Pages 2
Suggestions for Using COLMA BECOMES AN INDIAN 3
WE HAVE TO MOVE — An Improvisation Suggestion 41
Suggestions for Using THE VOYAGE OF THE HENRY B 43
SUNDAY EVENING AT THE MINES — For Impromptu Reading 99
Suggestions for Using I’VE BEEN CHEATING ON THE RAILROAD 109

This is a scene from THE VOYAGE OF THE HENRY B, which is about a gold rush ship going from Boston to San Francisco in 1849. It is mostly set on the deck of the boat.


[The tipping stops. A number of passengers come on stage and start playing cards, doing handwork, sketching, etc. Caleb enters and takes a drink from a water barrel with a dipper. He spits it out.]
CALEB: Phooey!  What’s the matter with this water?
CAPTAIN: [Standing nearby]  Nothing, son, that some fresh water won’t cure.  Been in a tar barrel too long, that’s all.  If you was four weeks in a barrel you’d taste funny too.
CALEB: When are we going to get some fresh water?
CAPTAIN: ‘Bout another week we’ll stop in Florida for water and some fresh provisions.  You ever taste a banana?
CALEB: A week!  You mean I have to drink this stuff another week?
CAPTAIN: More or less.  Maybe six days, maybe nine, depending on the wind.
JEREMY:  Hey, Clint.  You wanna bet which day we really hit Florida?
CLINT: Sure do.  How much?
CALEB: You mean we have to drink this for a week?  We’ll get sick!  We’ll die!
CAPTAIN: That’s the trouble with you landlubbers.  Soft.  Used to an easy life.  This here water won’t hurt you none.  Jake, tell this here boy–what’s your name boy?
CALEB:  Caleb.
CAPTAIN:   Tell Caleb here how to doctor the water a bit so’s he can get by on it till Florida.  [Goes off stage]
JAKE:  Well, now, boy.   Here’s what you do. [taking out flasks]
CALEB:   I’m really not a boy.  I’m 19.
JAKE:  S’cuse me.  Young man I’ll show you how to fix this here water.  See, put some in you cup and then take some molasses–you have molasses with you, boy?
CALEB:   I didn’t know to bring any food.
JAKE:   Cooky will give you some.  And just put a bit of molasses and a bit of vinegar in it.  Kills everything.  There you go try that.
CALEB:   [Takes a swig, rushes to side of ship, spits it out]  Phooey!
JAKE: Well some like it; some don’t.


This book started in the class of Nanette Sabatte, who taught fourth grade in Corpus Christi School (and was certainly one of the best teachers I observed in my 25 years of volunteer teaching of drama.) When I asked her what subject she wanted for a play for her class, she immediately stipulated “California history.” This posed something of a conundrum for me, as I was an Easterner until age 30, and had never studied the subject myself. But I wanted more than anything to help, not get in the way, so I agreed immediately. After which I took myself immediately to the Oakland Public Library, where I discovered that the Main Branch had a whole room devoted to California history. That room subsequently became an important resource in my writing, as I discovered I loved writing plays based on American history.

The teachers I worked with also influenced this book of plays. Several fourth grade teachers told me there was no drama material about California history, and that since they had to teach it every year, they urged me to “put a book together.” So one summer I sat myself down and put together the three plays I had written, some material to help the teachers using them, and some sketches and improv to make more choices for the class. I also decided that I wanted CALIFORNIA HISTORY PLAYS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE to be a sort of gift to all the great teachers I had been privileged to watch operate, by not arranging it so they would have to buy a book for everyone in the class.

This last decision proved to be a killer for publication, since educational publishers are all about big profits, as any college student can testify. So after being rejected by several publishers, I printed up 1000 copies myself. I then put an ad into a magazine for teachers, and a flood of requests came in. I found myself wrapping books in cut up grocery bags and trundling to the P. O. in a way that was cutting into my writing time.

Then it turned out one of my books was bought by another author of California history materials for teachers, Michelle Lasagna, who lived in Orinda, but had grown up in Oakland. Michelle called me and volunteered to take a few copies of the workbook to a teachers’ convention. Afterward, she described them as “flying off the shelf”, and said she would let me know every time she attended such an event. Furthermore, she refused to take a percentage; she said the workbook “brought in customers to my booth”.

The next thing that happened to CALIFORNIA HISTORY PLAYS was that a distributor of educational materials saw a copy of it at Michelle’s booth and wrote me a letter offering distribution. When I got the letter, I thought it was just some form request and sent it to my waste basket! A couple of weeks later I received a rather testy phone call: their catalogue would be printed soon, and did I want to be in it or not.

So because of Michelle, CALIFORNIA HISTORY PLAYS went all over California. After a couple of years I had to print more. I had the great pleasure of knowing that thousands of kids were being introduced to my characters, and were discussing what happened to the California Indians, how difficult it was to come to California in 1849, and how the Big Four cheated the Chinese.

Which brings me to a point I want to make about this workbook: California history is not all sunshine and oranges, and neither are the plays in this book. COLMA BECOMES AN INDIAN shows the incredible decimation of the Indian population and the virtual slavery of the missions. When teachers use this play—there is certainly no requirement that they do—I expect they will use it with the intention of discussing what happened, and how many different intentions got into the mix—governments, militaries, missionaries, fortune seekers, and so on. In fact, discussion how “winners write the history” is an important concept to bring up with children.

In this context, I will mention that a teacher could use this work book simply as reading material, and that I have directions for that in it as well.