It's an unseasonably warm November afternoon, and Celeste Benetiz, 17, and Jasmine Alvarez, 17, are hoping they won't need to wear their bonnets during their rehearsal of Jim Leonard's Anatomy of Gray.
"It's so uncomfortable," Benetiz tells drama teacher David Levine, who watches them take their paces below the stage in School of History and Dramatic Arts (SoHDA) multipurpose room.
"I actually think you should keep them on. You need to use that, think about how uncomfortable those characters must be. They had to wear those bonnets all the time," Levine tells them.
The bonnets stay on.
Anatomy of Gray is a period drama about a small town in Indiana beset by a plague that strikes shortly after a young doctor arrives after a storm. The townsfolk are at odds with each other over Dr. Gray; some believe he brought the plague with him, while others think he could cure it.
Anatomy of Gray is set in a world apart from Northeast Los Angeles, and Levine is focused on making sure his young actors inhabit it.
"I felt like it was time to challenge them, to make them look outside their world," he said. "They really rose to the challenge."
SoHDA's theater program is only in its second year, having launched when the Sonia Sotomayor Learning Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2011.
In its first year, Levine said, the program tackled shorter plays with scripts that featured young characters and worlds to which the actors could relate.
Anatomy of Gray is a difficult play, Levine said, about the a difficult topic. It tackles themes of science and religion, and calls on its actors to bounce dialog off each other with snappy timing.
"The hardest part are the accents," Benetiz said, who has worked hard to affect a Southern drawl while delivering lines. "Up here, we're totally different."
Levine also chose Anatomy of Gray because of its small cast--only nine actors. He knew if he was going to challenge his students, he needed a cast that could commit to the long hours of rehearsal.
"It's so worth," Alvarez said. "We're going to be the first class to graduate, so we want to set a high bar."
The actors said the reason they've bought into the long hours is because of Levine, who they say he is always the hardest working person in the room.
"I really appreciate him because he's so passionate about everything he does," said Edgar Perez, who plays Dr. Gray. "He talks to us as workers, not as children. He expects a powerful performance."
SoHDA's will present "Anatomy of Gray" on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m., Friday, Nov. 16, at 5 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the multipurpose room of Sotomayor Learning Academy at 2050 N. San Fernando Road. Tickets are $4 for children and $8 for adults.