"When Black Boys Die," written and directed by William Electric Black, is a new drama about a teenage girl's journey as she tries to understand the madness of gun violence that has killed her brother and consumed her mother (and so many other mothers who have also lost their sons to inner city violence). It is the second in a series of five plays by William Electric Black, to be collectively called "GUNPLAYS," that address inner city violence and guns. Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave (East Village), will present the work March 5 to 22, directed by the author.
The play is about Levon, an exceptional young teenager in the projects, who has received a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University. On a star-crossed July 4, while protecting a teenage girl from gang leaders, he has been accidentally shot and killed. Levon's mother tries to shame the community into action by posting lists of victims of shootings in her neighborhood while his sister goes on a quest for the truth of her brother's death. The girl Levon protected, whom all suppose to be the gang leader's trophy babe, manipulates others craftily and ruthlessly to obscure the truth of the tragedy. Meanwhile, Levon's shooting produces a mix of responses, some righteous and some violent, in the housing complex where he lived. A local art teacher tries to reach out peacefully to inspire the youth of the neighborhood while an elderly, beaten-down, ragtag street vendor rises from the street to take an unexpected revenge on the gang. When the smoke clears, it is revealed that family lines have been blurred and injustices have resulted, revealing how tragedies from gun violence can be compounded, even by the well meaning.
The play is meant to especially resonate for urban high school-age audiences and William Electric Black, a multiple Emmy-winner for "Sesame Street," has crafted it that way. It is nuanced and sophisticated, and not didactic or value-laden, in order to be most acceptable to the young people it targets. "When Black Boys Die" contains no police characters; it is not about conflict with authority. Rather, it focuses its audience's attention on the affected community, dealing intelligently and sensitively with the nature of violence, stressing the necessity to survive and prevent it. As the Mother in the play says “It’s no longer about Black boys dying--its about them living--their hopes, their dreams.” The central question is “What can we do to make a difference?” To facilitate its accessibility to its target audience, TNC will offer large discounts for student and youth groups.
The actors are Verna Hampton, Brittney Benson, Torre Reigns, Scarlett Smith, Levern Williams, Brandon Mellette, Lorenzo A. Jackson, R. Ashley Bowles. Set design is by Mark Marcante. Sound design is by James Mussen. Costume/prop design is by Susan Hemley. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff. Stage manager is Saleem Gondal and graphics/poster Design is by Sharon Jacobs.
Black's record with "activist" plays 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. Last season, Black launched his GUNPLAYS series at TNC with "Welcome Home Sonny T," a play that spotlighted two significant forces driving the current epidemic of gun violence: the social impact of alienation and unemployment on young black males and the declining influence of black ministers as a force of stability in affected neighborhoods.