I was intrigued when I stepped into the theater—an open space without seating with a projector showing heartbreaking statistics on gun violence.
I felt that I was in for an evening of spellbinding theater that would be capable of shaping the narrative of the serious problem of gun violence in our country.
There were no seats because the play is “immersive” and the play is called “a walk by” because, as per the description, the audience would move through various spaces along with the action.
But when the actors entered the space chanting “Book, backpack, gun,” my hopes for the evening began to fade. I spent the entire hour and fifteen minutes looking for a moment of true connection with the reality of gun violence; instead I was met with a barrage of sensationalist antics that ironically distanced me instead of drawing me in.
When an audience is assaulted with rhyme schemes and gimmicky props, it is easy to forget that gun violence affects real people (an annual average of almost 33,000 people per year) and exists outside of a theater piece that insists on using campy ploys to discuss it.
This reaction, of course, is the opposite of the intended affect. But dramatizing for the sake of dramatizing always leads to a dead end.
One particularly glaring dead end moment happened when a female ensemble member read a poem about a police tower—a source of surveillance and light—that is intended to keep her community safe. All attempts at sincerity were undermined by glowing lights held by the ensemble being turned on and off during the piece each time the actress said the word, “Light.”
Moments like these littered the play. I would have been happy to watch any of the young performers embody their character and tell the story truthfully without their performances being constantly interrupted by relentless gimmickry.
The cast, however, should be applauded for their commitment. I have no doubt that they, as well as the accomplished playwright, William Electric Black, are well versed on the complexities of gun violence. As a matter of fact, this play is the third in a series of five plays written by Black on the topic, collectively called “GUNPLAYS.” I simply wish that their director had spent less time on montages and the endless array of props and more time on helping these promising actors achieve persuasive performances.
There were other things that made me raise an eyebrow, too.
For instance, the play is called “The Death of a Black Man (A Walk By),” but its most gripping moments are about issues that face teenage girls. Curiously, half of the characters killed by gun violence in the play are teenage girls. Furthermore, the play is performed in vignettes, but the female ensemble performs the brunt of the narrative woven throughout. And the most captivating of these sketches is a violent rendering of the children’s song, “Miss Mary Mack”, performed by the female ensemble.
The immersive aspect of the piece is also sadly lacking. The audience mostly just stood around the space, awkwardly making space for the ensemble that rushes in and performs among them. I’m always game for pieces that make creative use of space and that challenge conventional notions of theater. But instead of being asked to “walk a mile in a man’s shoes” as the proverb goes (and the description claims), we were only asked to stand about and watch.
This piece would undoubtedly make an impact in schools and communities of young people, but regardless of the intended audience I hope that the performers are given as much opportunity to shine as the endless barrage of stuff that accompanies this show. Rap, poetry, song, and movement are absolutely effective to discuss gun violence, but they are a means to an end, not the end itself.
Maybe the next in the “GUNPLAYS” series will deliver more in the way of genuine storytelling to elucidate the very real problem of gun violence.
THE DEATH OF A BLACK MAN (A WALK BY) by William Electric Black
With: Chriz Zaborowski, Natasha Velez, Levern Williams, Damon Trammell, Carleton King, Brittney Benson, Brandon Mellette, Nestor Carillo, Sebastian Gutierrez, Dominique Koo, Scarlett Elizabeth, Sarah Shah, Caroline Banks, Kaylin Reed and Marjolaine Goldsmith.
Set design by Mark Marcante and Lytza Colon; Costumes and props by Susan Hemley; Lighting design by Alexander Bartenieff; Technical design by Alex Santul; Percussion by Chriz Zaborowski. Megan Horan (Stage Manager), Randy Simon (Production Coordinator), Jeff Pennington (Stage Coordinator), Erikka James (Graphics/Poster Designer) and Jonathan Slaff (Press Representative)
Theater for the New City 155 First Ave at E. 10th Street. Thursday- Saturday at 8pm. Sundays at 3pm. (212)254-1109. For tickets: smarttix.com. www.gunplays.org; www.theaterforthenewcity.net