WHEN the Boston Youth Theater's director, Elaine T. Koury, wanted to collect information for her new play, she asked hundreds of inner-city teen-agers what they wanted other people to understand about their lives. The things they told her confirmed her conviction that inner-city kids get a bum rap from a public that thinks of them largely in terms of drugs, guns, and gangs. The students said things like ``My life is not a joke.'' ``I'm one of the good guys.'' ``I want to be valued.''
Valuing these urban youngsters and changing their own views of themselves and the public's perceptions about them and are what Ms. Koury has been doing with BYT for 11 years. The company's zany, high-energy musicals, partly written by the 15- to 23-year-old performers, have won several awards. In addition to original productions, the kids also have created educational plays for Boston schools, a series of antidrug cable TV programs, and two half-hour TV specials seen by 1 million people, according to Koury.
But the current production, ``High Gear'' (running through May 14), is the company's swan song. The theater is closing, though not for the usual reason of too little money.
``We still have support in the form of funders, volunteers, and audience,'' explains Koury. ``What has made it too difficult for us is the disappearance of supports for the kids themselves. BYT has always dealt with kids' problems; it comes with the territory. But it used to be that, if a youngster had a really big problem, we would connect them with appropriate help. Now, because of years of cutbacks, that help is either not there or incredibly overburdened.''
Koury attributes the change to cutbacks in federal legal-aid funds for the poor and health and mental-health services. More than that, she blames the atmosphere of a society that cares more about its BMWs than its kids.
For example, the theater ordinarily has two or three kids needing extra help at Christmas, she says, but ``this year there were 12, each with a serious crisis.'' One was a college-bound student wrongly arrested by police who had been ordered to clear out ``undesirables'' in time for holiday shopping. ``Can you imagine what an arrest will do to your chances for getting a scholarship?'' Koury asks, appalled. ``We tried every place we knew to get a free lawyer. All were overburdened. We ended up doing most of the legal work. I called up lawyer friends, who explained things over the phone. The charges eventually were dropped. But that was a lot of time and energy for us. We're a theater company.''
In another instance, Koury recalls, ``I got a call at 3 a.m. from one of my girls, who was calling from a phone booth in the project in her nightgown. She'd run out of the house after being assaulted by a relative. So I drove down in my nightgown and got her, spent hours talking with her, and the next day helped her decide about whether to go to the police.
``You do what you can, and we're proud of what we've done,'' Koury adds, ``but the climate has gotten too cold, the circumstances too dire. Inner-city kids have always lived on a web they've created out of themselves and thin air,'' she says. ``They're making connections between themselves and something more solid. Those supports are disappearing or weakening. So other supports like BYT end up taking the weight. A spiderweb is miraculously designed and very strong, but it's meant to hold a spider, not a house. ... The climate has changed significantly enough so that it has become difficult for this fragile miracle to continue.''
This is not a throw-in-the-towel decision for Koury. A thin woman with enormous eyes and a halo of graying hair, she says, ``I am not burned out!'' She refers to the 700 students who have belted out high notes and cued lights over the years as ``her kids.'' They come back after they've ``graduated,'' and they inspire the others. Many are successes. One young man now dances with the Alvin Ailey company. Another is dancing in a six-month, sold-out tour in Europe. Another has worked on four major motion pictures. Scores of others have gone on to college and other local theater companies.
Koury and Loretta Chmura, coordinator of the magnet theater arts program at Boston's English High School, where Koury taught, started the theater in response to the needs of aspiring young actors, singers, and dancers and as a tool to motivate kids to value respect, being on time, and the organizational ability to begin an enormous project and take it, step by step, to completion.
``It's a great place for kids to actually see what they've got,'' said 22-year-old Naheem Allah at a ``High Gear'' rehearsal. ``If you've got a lot, this is your chance to pump it. If you don't, you'll get it.''
Belonging to the Boston Youth Theater family involves commitment. ``I have to get up for school at 6,'' said 18-year-old Laura Blackler of East Boston. ``Then I go all day till 10:30 at night. Yeah, I take the subway home.''
Racial tolerance is a high priority for Koury, something difficult to find in a city that had a divisive busing situation. In putting together each show for the company's downtown, no-frills theater, she holds auditions in every major neighborhood - the Irish-Catholic areas of South Boston and Charlestown, WASPy Back Bay, Chinatown, and the Afro-American districts of Mattapan and Roxbury.
``We draw them in here on the basis of talent,'' says Koury. ``We don't go putting out notices saying, `Anyone want to get their life together, learn to get along with other races?' There're adjustments. But we tell them, `You don't have to like them; you do have to learn to get along.' What happens is: They learn to get along, then wind up friends. And the friendships last.''
``I used to hang around,'' said Billy Forti, wearing a tattered and patched T-shirt he made for the dress rehearsal. ``People do look at you like you're nobody. They assume you're a hood. That's what Elaine's trying to change. If you take time to care, kids will care back. And they'll produce.''