The Mouths of Babes
Fresh from a mid-morning rehearsal break, several members of Xpressions, a local troupe made up of youths between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, regroup at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center's tiny upstairs theater for a scheduled run-through of the play they've written together. After listening to a few encouraging words from their director, Shadow Theatre Company artistic director Jeffrey W. Nickelson, the teens silently take their places backstage.
Following a slight miscue, the blood-red curtain opens slowly to reveal the company gathered around an empty chair. Sharply focused, loosely in sync and, for a moment, noticeably anxious, the actors each intone a few bars from several familiar songs. As lyrics from the spiritual "Wade in the Water" overlap with strains from that great ode to heavenly harmony, "Lift Every Voice," one wonders whether In or Out! (Doing Time?) will evolve into a retro-minded school pageant, filled with tributes to historical figures and clarion calls for unity, justice and peace.
But shortly after one performer delivers a colonial leader's infamous speech to his fellow slaveholders -- "Use fear, distrust and envy for control purposes," he urges them -- the show's tone turns unmistakably, sometimes disturbingly, modern. Indeed, throughout the hour-long work (which premieres this weekend), the actors -- all of whom auditioned to secure a spot in Shadow's privately funded summer program -- employ song, poetry, sketch comedy and dance to illuminate issues and events that most people would just as soon ignore or, worse, permit the news media to neatly package and interpret.
Take, for instance, the case of Nathaniel Abraham, the Michigan boy tried as an adult for a murder he committed at age eleven. Never mind that Abraham, who was eventually convicted of second-degree murder, is one of hundreds of Michigan boys locked up in a facility designed for youths sentenced as adults (incredibly, Michigan's female juvenile offenders are required to serve their time alongside adult inmates). Or that, prior to his arrest, Nate had a lengthy history of run-ins with the law. What should concern us most, the performers suggest, are the ways in which children, stripped of their identities by a world that regards new sports stadiums as more important than decent schools or housing, are tossed about like political footballs.
Backed by a softly strumming guitar, one young woman recites a poem about Nate's mother and the murder victim's sister, delivering the lines "This mother's strife/Not my baby/He don't deserve life!" with an eloquence that reverberates with implications of our shared culpability for every child's well-being. "They say that it takes a village to raise a child," declares one performer, adding that it's impossible to build any sense of community when municipal governments routinely permit developers to raze the buildings that make up such a community. "Whose housing project are they tearing down now?" another asks.
Apart from its timeliness and insight, though, what's extraordinary about this piece is that the actors communicate their message, born of weeks of improvisation and study, without a shred of self-righteousness or self-pity. Whether they're commenting on a few bars from "Strange Fruit," a chilling song that evokes images of lynched bodies swaying from Southern tree limbs ("They used to kill you, now you kill you," says one performer), executing a mime piece about the "white horse of heroin," demanding to know who profits from the penal system, poking fun at apartheid's lingering folly or singing a heartrending solo about the light that shines within, the company summons feelings and skewers convention with a force that's both remarkably controlled and passionate.
Fittingly enough, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who observed that one's highest aim ought to be "to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived." That's a tall order by any measure and any era -- one that, by virtue of their efforts here, these talented teenagers are well on their way to fulfilling.
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