Acclaimed young-adult novelist Sharon G. Flake has adapted her very first novel into her very first play.
The Pittsburgh-based author’s “The Skin I’m In,” based on her eponymous 1998 novel, receives an online premiere this week courtesy of Pittsburgh-based Alumni Theater Company, which focuses on the experiences of Black youth.
“Skin I’m In” follows Maleeka Madison, a 13-year-old Black girl who is bullied at school because of her dark complexion and homemade clothes. She also ends up under the thumb of a bully named Charlese, who lends Maleeka clothes in exchange for her obeisance. Maleeka moves toward self-acceptance with help from Miss Saunders, an empathetic teacher who has suffered similar trials because of a birthmark on her face.
“It’s a book about finding your voice, and speaking your truth, and learning to like who you are just as you are,” said Flake, a native of Philadelphia who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s and was in fact working for Pitt when “Skin I’m In” was published.
The book won numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent and the YWCA Racial Justice Award. A few years ago – after years of hearing fans say they wanted a performed version of the story – Flake received a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation to write a stage adaptation. A successful staged reading, in Homewood, was to be followed by Alumni’s premiere production this past May.
But the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t stop the show. Alumni and the production’s director, Kim El, turned to Zoom rehearsals for the cast of 20. This week, viewers will see a prerecorded production, with Katherine Bruce, of Homewood, as Maleeka, and Tracey D. Turner as Miss Saunders.
Flake has since published nine more books, most of them young-adult novels grounded in the Black experience. A tenth, a sequel to “Skin I’m In” titled “The Life I’m In,” is forthcoming in January.
But Flake said that even 22 years on, “Skin I’m In” continues to resonate. Some of that’s because of how it tackles colorism in the Black community.
“So many, so many African American young girls and guys have come up to me and said, ‘Hey, before this book, I didn’t like my skin color, I didn’t like who I was,’” she said.
Flake has learned that a cultural prejudice for lighter skin transcends national borders; she said the book’s message translates as far away as India. And coping with being bullied – over one of any number of differences with one’s peers – is something that makes the book’s message truly universal.
“It basically says to young people, who you are, and how you show up on the planet, is ok,” she said. “As a teenager they don’t get that all the time.”