Written and directed by William Electric Black
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 3.22.15
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
by Cindy Pierre on 3.10.15
L to R: R. Ashley Bowles, Scarlett Smith, Lorenzo A. Jackson, and Brandon Mellette in When Black Boys Die. Photo by Rosalie Baijer.
BOTTOM LINE: A young woman struggles to find answers about her brother’s untimely death after he gets gunned down in the projects.
With great charm and exuberance, Danielle Weeks (Brittney Benson), a young teenager living in the Bronx’s Woodhaven projects, appears onstage. Handling a basketball as deftly as she handles the audience, Danielle spins, jumps, and smiles, and we can’t help but take note of her. She’s alive and she’s here! And that’s precisely the point that writer-director William Electric Black successfully makes in the opening sequences of the poignant and entertaining When Black Boys Die. Danielle’s life, along with the lives of so many like her, matters. Though Danielle has had a hard-knock life, she’s still vivacious and still has the hope of something better.
While aspirations abound, the circumstances in Danielle’s life threaten to strangle them on a daily basis. On July 4th, a year after her brother Levon (Torre Reigns) was killed, the community is still reeling in the aftermath. Since Levon’s death, Danielle’s mother Ruby (Verna Hampton) has been obsessed with keeping a running list of all black boys killed. Current number: 104. Her grief stifles any love that she could have left to give Danielle. Instead, Danielle finds camaraderie and friendship in Cece (Scarlett Elizabeth), a spicy and desirable Latina with an unplanned baby who drinks too much and comes on too strong to fill the void in her heart. While contending with a mom who hooks from her apartment, Cece’s woes are further compounded by Dray (Brandon Mellette) and JB (Lorenzo A. Jackson), two drug-dealing gang members that harass her and terrorize the projects.
Yet not everyone and everything is dismal. While some sow destruction and pain, others sow light and promise. Mr. Jackson (Levern Williams), a local teacher and what many would harshly peg as an Uncle Tom, is such an example. Though Mr. Jackson has the means to escape this forlorn community, he remains in residence to help others. First introduced in a comical, uppity way, it is clear that as the drama goes on, Mr. Jackson’s presence is sorely needed. Another example is Say What (R. Ashley Bowles), an old-timer who shuffles and tells stories as he peddles his legal goods. The heartbeat of the projects, Say What is an urban staple and is instantly recognizable as a lovable hustler. He represents the will to survive, even if that will sometimes leads him to take the law into his own hands.
Foregoing police involvement, When Black Boys Die instead focuses on how a community tries to handle the problems of gun violence, drugs, rape, and tyranny on its own. The result is an ever-exciting and gritty presentation of inner-city living. Staged in Theater for the New City’s appropriately named Community Space, Mark Marcante and Lytza Colon’s brilliantly busy set design, displaying several settings at once, provides a wonderful and practical medium for Black to tell stories. Whether the characters are inside of a modest home, relaxing in the courtyard, or just walking by in the background, Marcante doesn’t waste any of the space or add anything extraneous. To distinguish flashbacks from present time, Alexander Bartenieff bathes the past in a red light, a very effective tool that redirects the audience’s perception and emotions immediately. His spotlights on key moments also illuminate our minds.
James Mussen’s sound design nearly functions as a character on its own. Though the use of some songs not popular during the time period in question, like Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” is irritating, these songs evoke the right kind of feeling and speak volumes about the inner-city culture: certain things never go out of style and certain mindsets are hard to escape.
Although Black’s plotlines and written dialogue are competent, he triumphs the most in directing his cast. Platforms are smartly used to engage the audience during moments that urge us to step up our awareness of the problems that are being presented. Fortunately, Black also has a stellar cast to work with. Whether it’s Danielle’s hardened disposition, Ruby’s grief, Cece’s vulnerability or Dray and JB’s wickedness, Black’s sharp direction allows each actor to shine. While the play could end a scene earlier than it does, the final scene points the audience towards a possible better and brighter future.
When Black Boys Die is a peaceful call to action, a siren of sorts that will hopefully incite its patrons to care more and do more. At the very least, you will be engaged with and moved by this theatrical presentation. At the very best, you may emerge with a sense of responsibility. “Bullets have a way of finding black boys”, declares Ruby. Perhaps this play will help those bullets either miss their targets or even prevent them from being fired. A lofty goal, but a good goal nevertheless.
(When Black Boys Die plays at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, through March 22, 2015. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $15 and are available at www.theaterforthenewcity.net or 212.254.1109.)