Can theater lead youth away from violence?

In a scene from Romeo and Juliet, Zack Myers and “Juliet,” Sofia de la Grana, examine a vial of poison.
In a scene from Romeo and Juliet, Zack Myers and “Juliet,” Sofia de la Grana, examine a vial of poison.

It might take a village to raise a child, but the same might be said about keeping the child alive. We say Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech must never be repeated — yet we know deep down they will. As we bemoan the awfulness of this social sickness, more children are gunned down daily while the village remains relatively docile.

How is it possible to read, “Analysis: A child is shot in Florida every 17 hours” and not be moved to act? The one sobering fact that sits atop all this data is that youths are killing youths. What is the solution? Holding town hall meetings are redundant if we do not use the resources we have to get beyond the conversations and convert our outrage into productive action. This is precisely what a group of 20 young high school and post-graduate theater performers are doing with its production of “The R+J Effect.”

In October 2016, Together for Children, a coalition formed by the Miami-Dade County school district, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and civic and business leaders appealed to the community to join its groundbreaking neighborhood task force with action plans and strategies to help combat gun violence in specific Zip codes of the county.

What if Works Inc. a community-engaged, post-graduate theater company, responded to the call. Believing young ears will listen to young voices, What if Works turned to a play long recognized as an advocate for tolerance and peace: William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Five hundred years ago, Shakespeare would have seen teens on the street caught in spontaneous violence. He also would have seen the dying spirit of parents suffering the unimaginable. Villains abound in Shakespeare’s work, yet he also recognized the peacemaker. “I do but keep the peace!” retorts Benvolio as Tybalt mockingly observes that he has drawn his weapon but chooses not use it.

Matching 10 student performers from five high schools with five alumni from Florida International University’s theater program What if Works offers mentoring while providing audiences with a sense of that change is possible through a collective effort.

“The R+J Effect” merges media and rap with “parabethan,” a form of Elizabethan and contemporary English developed in workshops over several months under the guidance of Marilyn R. Skow, a theater historian and former FIU Theater professor. Topics explored are “Parental Authority,” “Mentoring and Accountability,” “Emotional Impulse,” and “Escaping Opioids”.

The use of the word “Effect” alludes to the domino effect. By taking the Miami Capulet family and partnering with the Montague family in Washington D.C., Denver, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York, What if Works seeks to spread the message to wider audiences while encouraging students to use the arts to produce messages of their own. Production resources will be donated to partnering schools so they, in turn, can produce the play with a neighboring school. Still, the biggest reward for this young company is having the opportunity to “pass it on.” Young audiences see commitment from the stage shared by performers of their own age who place their focus on something bigger than themselves.

What if Works is grateful for the support it has received from the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council, Commissioner Francis Suarez, Esserman/Largo Honda, Homestead Center for the Arts, Caveman Productions, Florida International University and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Last, a shout-out must go a special young man: Aaron Willis. Shot by an errant bullet two years ago and confined to a wheelchair, Aaron advocates, between surgeries, on behalf of others like himself who are living victims of gun violence.

Aaron will address the audience following each performance. Only when each of us in the village gives young people purpose-driven opportunities will we begin to affect the future of gun violence. By passing on a sense of purpose What if Works Inc. believes a domino effect can take effect.

Phillip M. Church, artistic director of What if Works, Inc., is an associate professor in FIU’s Department of Theatre. For performance dates and locations, go to www.whatifworks.com.