WELCOME HOME SONNY T Opens Tonight at Theater for the New City
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. The Children's Defense Fund reports that between 1963 and 2010, nearly 60,000 black children and teenagers have been killed by guns. This is more than 17 times the number of black Americans lynched between 1862 and 1968. Medical academics consider gun violence a public health issue, challenging the assumption that individual behavior and mandatory sentencing for unlicensed firearms will sufficiently address the problem. However, since the 1990s, a lobbying effort led by the National Rifle Association has prompted Congress to effectively cut off funding for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research on the epidemic's causes and effects. The Obama administration took steps earlier this year to restart this research, but it will take years to complete studies so that lawmakers can implement evidence-based legislation. Wholistic understanding of the issue will require sensitivity to societal factors that may not appear in the data for a long time.
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 impact of alienation 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 yearing 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 are Richard Pryor Jr., Verna Hampton, Brandon Melette, Kadeem Harris, Nestor Carillo, Brittany 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 is accompanied by Harry Mann on saxophone.
William Electric Black, aka Ian Ellis James, is a seven-time Emmy Award winning writer for his work on "Sesame Street" between 1992 and 2002. He also wrote for Nickelodeon's "Allegra's Window" and LancitMedia's "Backyard Safari." Theater for the New City gave him his start in theater, presenting his earliest work, "Billy Stars and Kid Jupiter," in 1980. Now, TNC proudly continues its tradition of supporting and developing Black's unusual and energetic theatrical work.
In a series of multimedia projects, Black has campaigned for exercise and good nutrition for young children, prescription drug awareness and obesity prevention. He has received a Bronze Apple (National Educational Video Award) for directing. He has also received several Best Play Awards and has been published by Benchmark Education, The Dramatic Publishing Co. and Smith & Krauss.
He is a faculty member at NYU's Tisch School (Dept. of Dramatic Writing/Open Arts, and NYU's Summer High School Program). He has also taught at The Collegiate School, The Riverdale Country Day School, Southern Illinois University, 92nd Street Y, Teachers & Writers and TheatreWorks USA.
Beside socially-conscious plays like "Welcome Home Sonny T" and "The Lonely Soldier Monologues," Black creates delightful musicals for family audiences. These have included "Betty and the Belrays" (TNC, 2007), in which three white female singers challenged a racially divided society by singing for a black record label, "My Boyfriend is a Zombie" (TNC, 2010), which was like Grease with a zombie twist, and "American Star!!!" (TNC, 2012), a satire of adolescents' obsessions with celebrity idol TV shows. The last of these, on its serious side, shone a canny light on magical thinking in minority youth, where lack of opportunity gives rise to "pie in the sky" dreams like instant TV stardom. Black has also written, produced and directed a series of plays and musicals for La MaMa, where he runs the Poetry Electric series.
WHERE AND WHEN:
December 5 to 22, 2013
Theater for the New City, 15 First Ave.
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 PM; Sundays at 3:00 P
Tickets $15 general admission/$12 seniors and students
Box office 212-254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Show's website: www.welcomehomesonnyt.com
Running time 1:40. Critics are invited on or after Friday, December 6.
Pictured: The grieving family of a soldier who has died in gun violence upon his return home from Afghanistan is comforted by their minister. L-R: Brittany Benson, Kadeem Harris, Verna Hampton, Richard Pryor Jr. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.