How the arts can help children think about gun violence The former Sesame Street writer is working with the NYPD to create a small pilot program on gun violence at an elementary school in East Harlem.

How the arts can help children think about gun violence

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

William Electric Black - it's a name that may not be familiar outside the New York City theater scene. But for those trying to teach children about gun violence, it's a name that people in education and law enforcement are coming to know well. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: His colleagues in theater, television and academia simply call him Electric. After spending a decade as a writer on "Sesame Street," he wrote and directed a series of five plays about gun violence. Electric also wrote three picture books about guns for pre-K kids that were illustrated by a former "Sesame Street" colleague.

WILLIAM ELECTRIC BLACK: You need to start when they're 3 and 4, because by the time middle school, they're thinking about a gun and getting a gun, or I've got to get a gun to protect myself from the other kids that have guns. This is the time to now go in and talk to them, and get them to see there's another way.

KALISH: Because of his experience on "Sesame Street" and producing educational videos, Electric has been working with an NYPD official and teachers in East Harlem to create a small pilot program at an elementary school for the upcoming school year. Kristy De La Cruz is superintendent of the school district.

KRISTY DE LA CRUZ: Mr. William Electric Black has a proven track record with his advocacy for public health and well-being and wellness. He's somebody who is also deeply committed to serving the community. It's not just like he's coming in with ideas. He really wants to co-create lessons and something innovative in collaboration with the community.

KALISH: Electric has spent most of his creative energy writing and directing live theater. In his play "The Faculty Room," two girls on a high school basketball team are beefing. A lockdown is ordered after one of the girls brings a gun to school.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) She can't be in here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And I can't be out there either. Raylee's looking for me, and she's got a damn gun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Language, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This is the faculty room. She has to go.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The police are sweeping the school. I seen them going one room at a time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I don't care. Take her outside. And I mean now.

BLACK: Throughout the gun plays, I've sprinkled in whether it's reference to Sandy Hook or Columbine or Florida, all these different ones that have happened. They just keep happening.

KALISH: When real-world shootings took place during the performances, Electric would make last-minute tweaks to the script. After all of the performances, there were talkbacks in which the playwright engaged with audiences. Veteran screenwriter and playwright Richard Wesley has seen several of the plays and considers these talkbacks part of the theatrical experience.

RICHARD WESLEY: In addition to the communal experience of being in the theater, watching a play live, everyone now is talking about what the play means. But whatever that conversation is, that becomes its own theatrical experience.

KALISH: Wesley hired Electric to teach at NYU's Department of Dramatic Writing. He admires Electric's ability to juggle full-time teaching with his own creative projects, so does Crystal Field, artistic director of the Theater for the New City, where many of Electric's plays have been staged.

CRYSTAL FIELD: Electric is energy (laughter). He is electric. It's a God-given energy that he has.

KALISH: Electric is working on yet another play about guns, tentatively titled "The Gun Room."

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) And maybe there's a group of people in this room, tallying up how many guns are in America. They don't care how many kids get killed or old people, young people or a kid in the Bronx. They're in a room just saying, so what? Did we sell any more of those guns?

KALISH: Last Thursday, William Electric Black was at City Hall for a rally on gun violence, giving out copies of his picture book "A Gun Is Not Fun." Later that day, he watched the president's address on TV.

BLACK: You know, the president said, do something. That's me. I'm devastated by what's happening. But you can't let that choke you and do nothing. That just makes me want to do more.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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