Teens And Teachers Adapt Novel Of Police Brutality For Site-Specific Theatre Production
Teaching artists, public school students, award-winning authors and professional actors have combined their talents to produce All American Boys, a theatrical drama exploring the impact of police violence on black and white teens in an urban neighborhood.
The project was initiated by New York City teaching artists Jody Drezner-Alperin and Vicky Finney Crouch, who first heard about the young adult novel All American Boys from a radio program on NPR. Reading the book, “we realized, there’s nothing like this,” Drezner-Alperin said.
All American Boys, as reported by NPR’s Code Switch Books “is a young adult novel that looks at a specific instance of police brutality from the perspectives of two high school classmates: Rashad, who is savagely beaten by a local policeman who (wrongly) suspects him of shoplifting and assaulting a white woman, and Quinn, who sees the beating and initially pretends he didn’t.”
All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brien Kiely, was a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and it received the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.
Drezner-Alperin and Finney Crouch, who teach in New York City schools through Off the Page Education, decided to adapt the novel for a theatrical presentation that would combine the efforts of student actors and professional adult performers. The project became the focus of their residency at Piper Theater Productions, a Brooklyn organization dedicated to “Building Community Through Drama.”
One of their key collaborators was Shaqur Williams, a high school student familiar to Drezner-Alperin and Finney Crouch from an earlier project. “We worked together two years ago on a podcast,” Williams explained. Inspired by the idea of adapting the novel, he applied for a grant through the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Youth Voice awards. That funding helped make the idea a reality.
They developed the play for a site-specific performance at MS 51 (350 5th Avenue). The production takes advantage of the school’s campus, immersing the audience in the world of the drama. Williams performs in the play as a key character, the brother of the victim who makes sure the community takes up his sibling’s cause.
A key piece of the narrative, Drezner-Alperin explained, was that the violent encounter between a cop and a black teen also created a moral problem for a white boy who witnessed the incident. As they began developing the production, real-life events, from the police shootings of Alton Stiling and Philando Castile to the attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, underlined the relevance of the drama.
The racial dynamics explored in the story and reflected in the news shaped the rehearsal process as well as the performance said Drezner-Alperin, who directed the production with Finney Crouch. “We wanted to give the students a safe place to talk about race.”
Providing that kind of safe space is also the aim of the post-show talk back, scheduled for 7:30pm behind the Old Stone House (336 3rd Street). NPR host Helga Davis will moderate a panel featuring Borough President Eric Adams, authors Reynolds and Kiely and the cast and crew. The program is free and open to the public.
Site-specific performances scheduled for MS 51 (350 5th Avenue), will run from July 25-30. Regular shows have already sold out, but a post-production “talk back” scheduled for July 25 will give people who haven’t seen the show a chance to participate in a community discussion of issues raised by the drama.
Sign in or become a Bklyner member to join the conversation.