Education

Theater group confronts violence

‘Ain’t Easy’ shows teens in the cross-hairs

By Joseph Orovic
joseph.orovic@journalism.cuny.edu
NYCity News Service

Photo by Joe Orovic
Cast members Emilz Rodriguez, Anton Negroni and Ana Collado (left to right) fielded questions from the audience after their performance.

The mostly teenaged audience at The Point pondered Martin Luther King’s message of non-violence on the Friday before the civil rights martyr’s birthday.


The young men and women greeted “Ain’t Easy,” a multimedia theater piece created and performed by the Bronx-based Mass Transit Theater and Video, with laughter at times and with somber silence at others.


As the cast members dropped their heads and the lights dimmed, footage of King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech played on the white screen lining the back of the stage. In slow, sonorous tones, King’s familiar voice declared, “Non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”


They were fitting last words: “Ain’t Easy,” which ended its second run of the year with its final show at the local community center on Jan. 12, is about the tug of violence and the choice between yielding to it or shunning it.


Mixing video, music and rap lyrics, the multimedia theater piece was the brainchild of Lyn Pyle, the co-artistic director of Mass Transit Street Theater and Video. Craig Grant, who played “Poet” in HBO’s hit series “Oz,” directed the play.


The plot follows the intertwined stories of five young people from the Bronx as they are forced to choose between violent and peaceful resolutions to conflicts they face.


Many of the stories are drawn from real life, Pyle said. In fact, “Ain’t Easy” was inspired by the murder of teenager Kamal Singh three years ago on a North Bronx street corner near Pyle’s apartment. Singh, a mainstay of a neighborhood youth organization, was inexplicably gunned down by two 17-year-olds a block away from his home.


“They shot him in the heart and just blew him away,” said Pyle, with noticeable sadness.


Cast members recount their own run-ins with violence, with resolutions that can be humorous at times, while at others they depict slow meltdowns and explosions into fights.


One of “Ain’t Easy’s” characters, is a real 19-year-old named Pito Rivas. In brief monologues, actor John Rankin recreates the bullying that provoked Rivas to lash out, led to the bully’s death, and landed Rivas in prison.


Each scene ends with a rap by cast member Aisha Norris, who wrote all the rhymes herself. The rap segments enlivened the crowd at times, with audience members rapping along at one point.


At times, though, the audience seemed to miss the point. Watching footage of the 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham Alabama, the teenagers laughed as they saw firefighters blasting peaceful demonstrators with high-pressure water hoses, sending them hurtling like tumbling dice.


That disappointed cast member Emilz Rodriguez. “It’s odd,” he said, that some of the audience “just don’t take it seriously.”


But as the scene grew darker, the mood in The Point’s auditorium changed. A police officer’s dog yanked one protester by the hand; another was sent flying by the water. The audience grew somber, and there wasn’t a sound as the lights came back on.


Pyle understood Rodriguez’s frustration at the light-hearted response to the scene, but had no answer to the problem. “The best you can do is be a bit of inspiration,” she said.


“I’ve been really concerned about the level of violence among young people,” Pyle said after the play. “It’s a low-intensity war zone.”


In an effort to reach out to the audience, after the cast members took their bows, they stayed to chat with the teens about the play’s meaning. “The discussion is a way to increase the impact,” said Pyle. She added that the troupe planned follow-up workshops for the students.


Spectators said they empathized with the play and its message. “I’ve lost people,” said 20-year-old Cassim Brown. A friend was killed in a hit and run, he said. He understood the play, he said, because “I’m not a violent person.”


“It was very positive for the students,” said Diane Ayers, a science teacher at The Harlem Renaissance School. One of her students, Robert Hairston, who is also a grade school teacher’s assistant, chimed in, saying, he could “definitely use” what he had learned from the play in his classroom.


Post-show discussions are part of the tradition of Mass Transit Theater and Video, which is celebrating its 35th year. Headquartered at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, the troupe says its mission is to provoke “thought about the issues that touch our lives.”


For Anton Negroni and Norris, the play offered an opportunity to share their personal experiences with violence. They played themselves and portrayed their own stories. “It’s a chance to give them my advice on how I handled situations,” said Negroni.


The entire cast expressed pride in participating in the production. “It’s a good, positive play” that urges the audience “to consider listening and thinking before acting,” said Rodriguez.

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  1. Pingback: Mass Transit Theater brings the streets to the stage | Mott Haven Herald

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