‘When Black Boys Die’ Depicts Story of Inner City Violence


“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, 2015 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.

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Foreground: Torre Reigns as Levon Weeks, an exceptional teenager who has received a college basketball scholarship but on a starcrossed July 4, while protecting a teenage girl from gang leaders, is accidentally shot and killed. Behind: (L) Lorenzo A. Jackson as a gang member and (R) Brandon Mellette as a gang leader. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

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.

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.

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(L) Brittney Benson as the sister of an exceptional young man who has been tragically shot; (R) Verna Hampton as his mother, who would to shame the community into action by posting lists of victims of shootings in her neighborhood.

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 reported 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 last 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.

The actors are Verna Hampton, Brittney Benson, Torre Reigns, Scarlett Smith, Levern Williams, Brandon Mellette, Lorenzo A. Jackson, R. Ashley Bowles. Set design by Mark Marcante. Sound design by James Mussen. Costume/prop design by Susan Hemley. Lighting design by Alexander Bartenieff.

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Ashley Bowles as a street vendor who will rise to take unexpected revenge on a neighborhood gang. Photo by Tatiana Ronderos.

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, 2013), 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.

He is writing, directing, and producing animated videos on stroke prevention with the National Stroke Association and childhood obesity prevention for Hip Hop Public Health under the direction of Dr. Olajide Williams featuring music by Doug E. Fresh, Chuck D, other rap artists. He has just completed three short films to educate the Black faith-based community and the Hispanic faith-based community on stroke awareness.

Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave, NYC will present “When black boys die,” March 5 to 22, 2015. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 Seniors and Students and $10 for groups. The box office number is (212) 254-1109 and tickets can be purchased online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net. More information about the play is at www.gunplays.org. The running time is 90 min.