It has been a little more than four years since the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and the resulting bubbling-over of U.S. racial and political tensions for all the world to see.
"It was the shot heard around the world," playwright Thomas Soto says.
At the time, he and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj - who was recently appointed guest artistic director for the 49th season of New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia - were in New York.
"We were trying to find ways to [channel] our energy and pain, and to make sense of the senseless," Maharaj says. The two cowrote The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, a "poetic docudrama" fused with hip-hop and modern dance, illustrating the last seven hours of Martin's life. Opening night for the production, directed and choreographed by Maharaj, is Thursday at New Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street.
During his last hours, Martin is led by his spirit guide, Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy kidnapped, brutally beaten, and shot in the head in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman in Money, Miss. His killers were acquitted, yet his murder helped fledge the civil rights movement of the late 20th century. When Maharaj heard Martin's story, he immediately drew parallels with Till's, calling it a reminder of "that fear that they could take us in the middle of the night as children."
Like Till, Maharaj says, Martin started a movement: Black Lives Matter, which pushed the often-gruesome truths behind police brutality to the forefront on social media, in the news, on the streets, and in the political sphere. The movement was also fiercely propelled by the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.
Referring to students in the Freedom Theatre's performing arts training program, Maharaj says that "every day I see hundreds of black students and they say, 'We feel like we have targets on our back. When we come in here we feel safe, but outside they just see another N-word in the hood.' "
Soto and Maharaj spent almost a year and a half researching Martin's early life and legacy, perusing court documents and watching interviews with his parents. Hundreds of actors came out for auditions. The resulting cast is all-Philly.
Trayvon is all the more remarkable because it is being produced at the New Freedom, a theater that for at least 15 years has been struggling to keep the financial wolf from the door. Much of the difficulty began in an all-too-familiar way: a new construction project that spiraled beyond the ability to manage it.
Sandra N. Haughton, a financial consultant helping Freedom, was hired in 2010 as executive director in charge of all operations. She says that relentless chipping away, stringent cost controls, and a focus on core purpose have stabilized Freedom and made the production of Trayvon Martin possible.
"Trayvon is the culmination of years of planning and work," Haughton says. "It's not that Trayvon is going to revive the theater. Trayvon is a result of reviving the theater. That's a major distinction."
She says Freedom has spent a great deal of time considering what its core values are, and "what it is we can realistically do." This led to a plan to retrench, sell off noncore assets (such as a parking lot), and consolidate operations into a portion of the massive Edwin Forrest mansion, longtime home of the theater company. The aim is to utilize the rest of the mansion in ways that will generate more revenue.
"We decided once we had the money, to use it to program," Haughton says. That time, she says, has come. "Our goal is to become as self actualizing as possible."
That means training young people in theater arts, producing shows the community wants to see, and providing space for organizations to rent.
Freedom Theatre has long had the mission of supporting the African American dramatic arts, producing both new and established plays.
"They say black people don't support their organizations," Haughton says. "That's just not true." She said the community has consistently supported Freedom through contributions, attendance at productions, school enrollment, and volunteer work.
Maharaj says not a day goes by that someone doesn't take a photo of the poster outside the theater featuring Trayvon Martin's face. Once, she says, someone looked at the poster, came in, and bought 20 tickets.
During tech rehearsal, Amir Randall, 16, an alumnus of the theater's training program, says his first line as Trayvon. Despite hours of practice already today, he is energetic and natural. Soto says that Randall "reminds us every day why we're doing this."
Randall was 12 when Martin died. He says that although he didn't totally understand then, over the years he has begun to realize "it's a problem, and it's something happening every week and every month."
When he learned he had landed the role, the northwest Philly native says, he and his grandma screamed for 10 minutes. Then he got to work. He researched the lives of other victims of racial violence, including Till, Medgar Evers, and James Byrd Jr.
For a little more than a month, Randall has been following a demanding schedule: school, then football practice, then rehearsals.
"Our director, Rajendra, always said, 'We will never be as tired as our ancestors,' and I always think about that," he says. It's not a role he takes lightly, and he said he values the support of his family, the cast, and his community.
"When they see me," he says, "I want them to think of the story."
Throughout the production, the watchword has been sankofa, which in the Twi language of Ghana translates as "go back and get it." Maharaj urges people to learn from the past, notice the patterns, and not sit idly by as some of the ugliest parts of history repeat themselves.
"I want [the audience] to remember that a child died," Maharaj says. "We are responsible because we are all members of one shared human family, and the struggle continues."
Soto also stresses that Trayvon's story is an American story: "America is great not because we have everything right, but we can say when things are wrong."
As the rehearsal continues, Soto pauses and says, "I don't know how any American can think that Trayvon isn't a part of them."