In a neighborhood torn by gun violence between black and Mexican youth, a prominent black minister, haunted by the ghosts of his struggles as a 60's radical, faces his own impotence to restore order in "Welcome Home Sonny T," a new play written and directed by William Electric Black. Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC presented the work's premiere run December 5 to 22, 2013.
The play is in the tradition of Steven Carter, Lorraine Hansberry, Charles Fuller and James Baldwin, whose realistic plays confronted black family and community issues of exceeding relevance and urgency. It is the first of a series of five plays by William Electric Black, to be collectively called "GUNPLAYS," that address inner city violence and guns. Black's record with "activist" plays of this sort is admirable. In 2009, he directed Theater for the New City's sensational and serious "Lonely Soldier Monologues: Women at War in Iraq," a staged series of monologues based on a book by Helen Benedict. The play earned widespread notice and significantly helped the issues of America's female soldiers to be widely recognized for the first time.
There has never been a more urgent time to address inner city gun violence, a force that our society has been helpless to resist. William Electric Black's "GUNPLAYS" series embraces the issue with an artist's understanding. "Welcome Home Sonny T" spotlights two significant forces driving the epidemic: the social forces of and unemployment on young black males and the declining influence of black ministers as a force of stability in affected neighborhoods.
The play centers on Reverend Miller, a middle-aged Staten Island activist minister (who might be partially based on Black's own father, who was a clergyman in Oyster Bay, Long Island). Rev. Miller had been a firebrand activist for civil rights, but has been worn down over his long career. He had rescued a troubled but promising teen known as Sonny T by channeling him into the army. Having served in Afghanistan, Sonny T is finally returning home and a welcoming party is planned. But there is discord, even shooting, in Sonny's neighborhood between the established blacks and Mexican newcomers. Sonny T's brother, Rodney, is under the influence of an angry, lost brigand named Big Boy who plans to threaten a protest march organized by a young Mexican man, whose brother has recently been shot and wounded. The play looks deeply into Rodney's home life, revealing the powerlessness of his mother and sister to guide him, and into the social injustice and peer pressures that drive his choices. The community's elders watch as their victories of past decades are undone by the plague of gun violence. Discouraged and yearning for redemption, they are ultimately capable of extreme bravery.
The play resolves with its young people, scarred by the violence, ultimately accepting the torch from their elders. Their transformation from bystanders to community leaders is meant to be inspiring and instructive. The message is, we are not helpless against inner city gun violence, but there is work to be done. William Electric Black says, "Inner city youth can and will embrace the ideals of what their leaders are trying to do, so long as the elders of the communities keep trying to connect with younger people, reaching out to those who are lost and helping them find the path. This can't happen if the young people are locked up."
The actors were Richard Pryor Jr., Verna Hampton, Brandon Mellette, Kadeem Harris, Nestor Carillo, Brittney Benson and Levern Williams. The production has set design by Mark Marcante, lighting design by Federico Restrepo, costume design by Susan Hemley, props and set pieces by Lytza Colon and sound design by James Mussen. The play was accompanied by Harry Mann on saxophone. Fight choreographer was James Manley. Stage Manger was Jason Marx. Production Coordinator was Randy Simon. Assistant Stage Manager was Chriz Zaborowski.
"William Electric Black has created a morality play about gun violence that doesn't sweep the problem under the rug....Buoyed by polished performances from an appealing and talented cast and solid writing and staging this work does more than play out before your eyes....We look forward to seeing Black's varied perspectives on the issue through more theatrical efforts." (Front Row Center)
"Welcome Home Sonny T is an electrifying piece of theater, at once poignant and disturbing. The 'darkness outside' finds a place inside the play's illumination, and we cannot remain unmoved." (New York Theatre Review)
"It addresses the issues in a way that all people can relate to....New York City welcomes this play with open arms." (Stage Buddy)
" [Hopefully, the next four plays will also be] high voltage, scorching performances that will knock our socks off." (Berkshire Fine Arts)