William Electric Black Tackles Gun Violence In 5 Ambitious Plays
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Ian Ellis James has won seven Emmys for his work. He was the first African-American writer for "Sesame Street." And under his stage name, William Electric Black, he's tackled an eclectic mix of topics from reality TV and zombies to women fighting in Iraq. Now, he's taking on gun violence in a series of plays. Jon Kalish has the story.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: It was the relentless hammering of media stories that finally got to him.
WILLIAM ELECTRIC BLACK: Every day, this one shot, that 14-year-old, that 15-year-old. I don't know if you remember a year or two back, a young girl, basketball star, you know, top-10 in the country just gunned down. So it's just gnawing at me, scratching at me. And I said I have to do something.
KALISH: William Electric Black wrote the first of what he's calling his GunPlays two years ago. "Welcome Home Sonny T" tells the story of a black soldier who returns from Afghanistan only to be gunned down in New York City. Black's latest is "When Black Boys Die" about a talented high school athlete who's fatally shot. His sister posts a list of young, black homicide victims in the neighborhood, a list compiled by her mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHEN BLACK BOYS DIE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As mother) So no one ever forgets.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As daughter) Forget? Omar Ford. Before him, Parker Jones. Last month, Jamal Brooks. He got shot right in front of a corner store. I don't need your list or police taking pictures telling who getting shot around here. I live it every day and so do you.
KALISH: Some of the cast members have been touched by gun violence. Twenty-six-year-old actor Brandon Mellette plays a drug dealer in the play.
BRANDON MELLETTE: I live in the South Bronx so I see gun violence often. My brother and cousin were shot in front of my building, mid-day in front of my little sister and my little cousin. It was really tragic, something that I hold still with me. This is why I'm here.
KALISH: His brother survived, his cousin did not. Director William Electric Black calls gun violence a public health issue, and he raised it during a talk-back session following a recent performance where he was questioned by a member of the audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BLACK: Is it possible - this is kind of my theory - that the Surgeon General is going to say something about guns. They're, you know - they're going to take your life. It's a hazard. And then we start educating, like, in pre-K and all the way up, that somehow it could be.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's never going to happen.
BLACK: No, no, no.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Excuse me, excuse me. Electric, you're being so idealistic.
KALISH: Another audience member, who lives not far from the Theater for the New City where the play is running, says people are shot regularly in his neighborhood. Ricky Ricardo - yep, that's his real name - works at the Lower East Side Girls Club.
RICKY RICARDO: There's been a shooting in my neighborhood every week or every other week for the last six months. It doesn't always make the paper. So I'm not out after 7 or 8 o'clock. I won't go out at 10 o'clock to get a container of milk. I'll have to wait til the next morning. I don't invite to my home during the evening. I adjust my life.
KALISH: And that's why even though the issue of police shootings of unarmed black men has very much been in the news in the last year, playwright William Electric Black says he wanted to focus on black-on-black violence.
BLACK: I think people should be protesting young kids shooting each other, not just police violence against young black men. I think you've got to look at the young black men shooting each other. That should be the march. Like, how are we allowing this to happen in our community? I term it generation gone. They're going to just shoot each other, and they'll be gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHEN BLACK BOYS DIE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As mother) See, I'm tired of thinking about black boys dying. Time to think about them living. Ain't that right?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As daughter) That's right, Momma.
KALISH: William Electric Black's next GunPlay is based on the shooting of more than a dozen black teenagers in Chicago in one day. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.