Playing off their experiences

Theater: In a summer project, East Baltimore teens draw on real-life drama to create drama on stage.

August 19, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Mama Kay is trying to keep her actors focused. No easy task because most of them aren't actors. They're East Baltimore teen-agers who signed up for summer jobs and ended up on stage.

"You better focus. Focus! Focus!" she says. "Keep going. Keep going. More energy!"

For seven weeks these children talked about their lives and culled from their stories a play called "Youth Violence: A Cry for Help."

The final rehearsals are burning them out. But Mama Kay shows no mercy.

She wants them to put their hearts into a scene based on the hundreds of "RIP" memorials spray-painted across the city. She wants them to reach down and pull up a piece of themselves.

"You have to feel it. Haven't we all lost friends? Didn't we have a discussion about this?" asks Mama Kay, a k a Kay Lawal-Muhammad, 42. "Let's push ourselves emotionally, everybody. Let's really push."

They run through the scene that ends with a young man stepping forward to offer a libation for the fallen.

"I miss you Biggie," he says, "and Lil' Shorty. So for all of you, I pour my 40."

Children and violence have been in the news across America this year. In the spring there was Columbine High School. Last week, a gunman terrorized pre-schoolers at a Jewish community center near Los Angeles. Last weekend 10 Baltimore teen-agers were wounded by gunfire. "Youth Violence," to be performed tonight and tomorrow afternoon, brings a piece of that story to East Baltimore.

The idea began with Karen Kemp, a domestic violence coordinator for the Historic East Baltimore Coalition. For three summers, she has brought directors, drummers and other artists into the neighborhood for the theater projects. Two years ago, the play centered on domestic violence. Last year's subject involved violence and teen dating.

This year, the children told their own stories.

They were an unruly bunch, angry, wary. They needed nurturing and scolding. Rashida Forman-Bey, the show's co-director, and other adults tried to turn the group into a family, with a decidedly Afrocentric thrust. The women were called "mama." The men were called "baba." Sometimes the children were called "beloved."

"That gets back to that whole village concept," says Forman-Bey, 40. "I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper. When you hurt, I hurt."

Using acting techniques, psychodramas, meditation, sound therapy, spirituals, Native American chants and African songs, the adults broke through the emotional armor these children carry every day of their lives.

"You can't just grow up in this neighborhood and be nice," explains Dikeshia King, a slender 14-year-old from the 900 block of North Port Street. "Every time you look around somebody getting shot, getting banked. It's a ghetto world around here."

Edward Dixon, 16, lives in the 1400 block of East Eager Street, several blocks from King. But his world is the same.

"It's like hell out here. Just being on your own block, it's like a war zone. You can't even come out and sit on your own steps," he says. "I don't think people have wised up to what kind of tragedy we're living in."

Ask him how many people he knows who have died and he pauses, then starts counting them off. One, two, three. Five, maybe six. People he knows, not close friends. Edward, a tailback for Southern High School, is grounded in church.

Kevin Kitchen, one of his colleagues this summer, has lost good friends. Kevin, 17, says he grew up with four close buddies. One is dead. Two have been locked up. That leaves two young black men out of five. Tough odds in anybody's book.

"It's a trip. It makes you lose your mind, to see your buddies killed, gone to jail," he says. "Me and another friend made it out OK, but it's something to give you gray hair."

He's only 17, but he talks like a survivor.

"I feel as though the odds, they're crazy. We're living in a society where two out of five are going to make it in life," says Kevin, who wants to be a fireman. "That's messed up."

All summer long the directors and staff tried to work some magic with these children. They became alchemists, using Turner Auditorium at Johns Hopkins Hospital as their laboratory. The result harks back to the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early '70s. There is the same exuberance, the same inspired combination of African dance and drum rhythms and black American street theater.

"The idea is that the entire village has to be responsible for these young people. We all have to bring in our own healing," says Lawal-Muhammad. "We end up losing a lot of young people because we don't have enough time in an eight-week session to deal with their issues."

They dropped one young man after he threatened to hurt a group member. One young woman went to lunch a week before opening night and never came back. A court date threatened another young man's participation. None of that stopped the show, or dulled their enthusiasm.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.