Klahowya student wants to make history with history

Anthony Zendejas portrays seven different characters in 15 minutes during his short play about POWs. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
Anthony Zendejas portrays seven different characters in 15 minutes during his short play about POWs.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

When Anthony Zendejas performs, grown men cry.

It’s not just the average man either. Men who were starved, beaten, tortured and given no reason to live — they are the ones that connect most with the 18-year-old Klahowya Secondary School student.

“When I saw their tears, it was the hardest performance I’d done,” Zendejas said of performing his one-man skit in Washington D.C. The performance has attracted the local and national spotlight and the high school senior is busy preparing to take it international.

His 15-minute skit, “Through the Valley,” brings to life the words and lives of American men who were part of the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines. About 12,000 American soldiers were captured by the Japanese army and forced to march nearly 70 miles over the course of a week and many were killed en route.

Zendejas has performed his skit more then 40 times for audiences across the country including in Washington D.C. for a crowd of prisoners of war, some of whom survived the march. Now, he will take his show across the North Pacific to Japan.

The trip is scheduled for July, where he will perform at colleges and universities. For the 18-year-old, the performance is not about him, but the people he portrays.

“It’s not as if I’m performing for an audience, it’s as if I’m honoring these men,” he said. “It’s not my story to stop telling.”

What started as an eighth-grade history project has enveloped Zendejas and his family and placed him at the center of history in more ways than one.

In San Antonio, Texas, last year, Zendejas performed at a convention for members of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor and it was there that Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki gave his country’s first apology to former American POWs.

“We witnessed history and we made history,” said Margot Zendejas, Anthony’s mother.

Through performing his historical play over and over again, Zendejas said he’s been thrust into a place of historical significance, a chance to help bring the two countries together through his retelling of a 68-year-old tragedy.

“It’s not only to tell their story but have it remembered and to have reconciliation,” he said. “It’s a position I never saw myself in.”

Following his performance in San Antonio, Zendejas was given an award by the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor and is the only student to date to ever win the award.

He also won a $16,000 national scholarship award from a Veterans of Foreign Wars essay contest this month.

Zendejas said he owes much of his theater experience to the productions in Klahowya’s drama department. However, it is his self-written piece that is more taxing on him than anything he’s ever done on stage, he said. He describes it as an “emotional explosion.”

“Every time I finish performing, I am emotionally drained,” he said.

To get a better understanding of what his characters went though — he plays seven people in 15 minutes — Zendejas starved himself for three days and drank small amounts of water while hiking down his Seabeck road.

Margot Zendejas said that during one of her son’s performances, a former POW lowered his head and asked her how Anthony knew his pain so well.

“They love him,” she said.

To date, Anthony has interviewed dozens of former POWs, Japanese journalists and best-selling authors all in an effort to create an accurate trip through history. The entire play was written using the spoken and written words of the POWs themselves, he said.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 239, 190 Dora Avenue in Bremerton, will hold a benefit dinner for Anthony’s trip to Japan April 22. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased by calling (360) 377-6739.

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