Making Theatre in the Gritty City
Monday, April 21, 2014
By Nirmala Nataraj
Seventeen-year-old Maurice Jones is on the stage, surrounded by his fellow ensemble members, who are all clad in white and approaching him with an air of ceremonial somberness. He is silent, but his face deftly and subtly conveys everything from humiliation to anguish to resignation as the rest of the cast strip him down to his underwear and garb him in an orange jumpsuit. Jones, who only moments before had portrayed putty-faced comedian Dave Chappelle with the chops of a practiced entertainer, isn't just good at scoring a laugh or two—he is arrestingly vulnerable on stage, as he curls into himself, shakes, flails and weeps. Jones's heartbreaking scene of getting initiated behind bars is just one of many intense moments in the recent show Caught Up, which marks the fourth production of Oakland-based Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre.
A private prison executive and potential investor
perform their scene atop a mountain of black
prison inmates in Gritty City Rep's Caught Up. Photo: Lindsay Krumbein
Caught Up is the ensemble's first original piece, but the early vision of the company wasn't to create new works. Customarily, it performs contemporary published plays in fall and Shakespeare in spring. Artistic director Lindsay Krumbein and cowriter (and GCR board member) Tom Bruett created the play over a three-week period in the fall, and the subject of the play hits close to home.
One of the primary inspirations for the show was Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. "The drug war has targeted youth and people of color, and has seen a ridiculously high increase in the numbers of people who are incarcerated...and the Supreme Court has made it impossible to challenge police action on the basis of race," says Krumbein, who notes that the book offered details and insight into many of the things she'd witnessed over her years of working in a predominantly black community, but hadn't had the facts to back up her observations.
After reading the book, she knew that she wanted to make a piece that would "force people to look at the vulnerability of black men in particular." She recalls reading a recent article in the Oakland Tribune that delineated some harrowing statistics for young black men. Krumbein thought, "Yes, we need to take a closer look at this, but at the same time, I have all these young black men doing theatre with me all day for nothing but the love of it, and people need to know about that, too!'"
The title of the show emerges from the slang term of getting "caught up" in the system, but given that the audience is volleyed with a plethora of facts during the production, Krumbein's intention was also to ensure that people get caught up on the glaring reality of the prison-industrial complex. The show melds verbatim monologues with scripted scenes, rounded out by a healthy dollop of physical theatre and vaudevillian antics. One scene includes an interview between Amy Goodman from Democracy Now and author Michelle Alexander. At one point in the scene, Ronald and Nancy Reagan walk in and interrupt with one of Reagan's State of the Union addresses. But then, a fictionalized Wanda Sykes intervenes, which, says Krumbein, results "in a totally wild meeting between all these characters who would probably never be in the same room, and it's funny, but in an ‘Oh my God, this is awful' kind of way."
Krumbein, who hails from a teaching background, worked at San Francisco's Mission High School before moving to Oakland and working with at-risk populations in various schools across the East Bay. "Incarceration is such a huge issue in our community, and many of my students have friends and family members who are locked up or on parole," she says. "The show itself was very flexible—it had minimal lighting and set. So we banged it out, edited it, did casting...and it's been sold out every night so far."
Krumbein herself has been an avid theatregoer since she was "in utero," she says. "My family goes to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every summer...my first play was at age six, and it was The Comedy of Errors. I loved the raucous over-the-topness you can bring to Shakespeare, and I got hooked at a young age. I loved the richness of the costumes, the removable pieces on stage sets...and it sparked my imagination for years." And when Krumbein taught high school English years later, she had a knack for transforming teenagers' preconceived notions about Shakespeare being stuffy and boring.
"Kids really got how funny and powerful this material was," she remembers. Her love for Shakespeare has, of course, extended to GCR's work. Last spring, the ensemble performed The Tempest, with a 1930s sideshow/circus theme. Prospero was the ringmaster of the circus, while the royalty took on old-fashioned gangster personas. "We created sideshow ‘freaks' that were true to the era," says Krumbein. "I studied characters like the lion-faced boy and the lobster-claw man, and it was a pretty wild staging!"
At Mission High School, where there was no drama class or after-school theatre, Krumbein ended up launching a theatre production program, and she helmed four shows before getting transferred to another school. She eventually ended up in the East Bay, where she also opened three different production programs in schools where there previously were none.
"I was tired of pouring my blood, sweat and tears into these amazing programs and not being able to continue because of forces outside my control," she says. That was when she decided to start GCR in 2012, as an Oakland community group and nonprofit. But she also had other reasons. While her options in the public-school system were somewhat limited, GCR gave her an opportunity to work with edgier material. "In schools, you have to be careful, but here we can do whatever we want—the kind of work I can't see being produced in high schools."
Krumbein describes the group as having an athletic approach. "The way I teach has a bit of a coach perspective—it's all about drilling and doing it again. I don't care if it hurts—if you're not injured, I don't want to hear about the soreness! And the kids thrive on that. They are strong, and accustomed to doing heavy-duty productions." In fact, Caught Up features two hours of intense physical theatre, minus a crew or a stage manager, which means the ensemble is responsible for the nuts and bolts of the show.
Many of the youth in the program come into GCR with no previous theatre experience. "Many of them have never seen a play," says Krumbein. "But they are hungry, and they want to be seen. They are high-powered in their ability to take directions and respond to feedback. And they are bright and sharp, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're all strong academically." But Krumbein works avidly with the ensemble members to ensure they keep their grades up, even bringing in an academic coach who tutors the kids who need and want it.
The commitment required from the ensemble, whose members' ages range from 13 to 19, is demonstrable. Krumbein asks for a year's commitment (two seasons), in which the teens are expected to rehearse six hours a week—and more when they are in the midst of a show. But Krumbein sees it as an exercise in learning social responsibility. "I try to be really clear in the beginning and not scare people away. But to miss a show, you'd have to be under a train without a leg, because we don't have understudies. It's a valuable learning experience in positive peer pressure. It builds a trust that is often lacking in the lives of lots of young people."
Currently, the ensemble comprises 15 youth from eight different schools. Two of the members are in community college, while the rest are in high school (primarily in the Oakland public-school system). Krumbein's approach to recruiting is anything but passive; she has connections with many of the teachers on campuses across the East Bay, who help identify students who might be a good fit for the company. For Krumbein, the problem with posting and making announcements as a recruiting method is that "nobody shows up. You have to specifically target kids, find the ones who want to take risks and put themselves out there, who are looking for something to engage them. In this population, it takes a lot of work to do that. Getting them to audition is a bit of a crazy dance—making sure they have BART money, texting and emailing—but the ones who do show up tend to be pretty awesome."
Krumbein notes that the opportunities for accessible theatre programs in the Oakland community are scarce. Stand-alone companies and summer camps can be expensive, and scholarships require a lot of paperwork, which can exclude the very people they are designed to serve. "Here, you sign a commitment form and you're good to go. You get a year of free training and stay if you want to." Many of the youth will go on to get two or three years of training, and given that the ensemble rehearses year-round, the extensiveness of its education is on par with few other programs in the area. It becomes a definitive experience for many of the youth.
Six of the members in the ensemble have been involved since the beginning. These include 16-year-old Marques Conerly, a junior at Oakland Technical High School. "This kid takes a note like nobody I've ever worked with," says Krumbein. Conerly has four monologues in the current show—more lines than anybody else. He plays a character based on a real person, Kali Muscle, an ex-convict and bodybuilder from Oakland who is now famous in Hollywood.
At the show, one of the ensemble members' relatives came up to Conerly and complimented him on his dead-on performance—as it turned out, he had grown up with Kali Muscle. One thing led to another, and Conerly found himself on the phone with the very man he'd portrayed in the show.
"[Kali Muscle] couldn't make it out to see the show, but he wanted to be sent footage, and then there was this whole conversation about Marques going down to L.A. to see him," says Krumbein.
Conerly remembers being in ninth grade when he found out about GCR. Krumbein attended a play that he was performing in and invited him to try out for the ensemble. "All the members are very close, like family. And I enjoy how the experience has taught me to communicate with people, to work on my memorization, and to take more responsibility. And when the excitement of the crowd is present, that's when I find I have my best moments," he says.
"It's unusual to give someone a note about their entire performance and character, and to have them get it and then do it," says Krumbein. "He's able to drop into the character and shift his entire physicality." Since GCR places a premium on keeping its ensemble sharp and informed, Krumbein is also ensuring that Conerly will continue his education at a summer seminar at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year.
Theatre was already a part of 16-year-old Aneesah Abdel-Qawi's life before joining GCR. Abdel-Qawi, who attends MetWest High School, had performed with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but the distinction with GCR is that "you learn the language of theatre—not just lines. You see other plays, you get to learn about things like lighting, and you have this deeper understanding of how and why theatre is done," she says.
And while many other people, teens and adults alike, might balk at the sheer amount of work required to be in GCR, Abdel-Qawi, who will be majoring in theatre studies when she attends college next year, is unfazed. "I don't feel like I'm going to work. I always have fun every day, whether we're warming up, hanging out or helping each other with our lines...and I love that a play is a unique experience every time it's performed. Instead of reading reviews about your work, you get the instant laugh or clap. As soon as it's over, you know whether it was good or not."
For 19-year-old Robert Paige, currently a student at Laney College, getting involved with GCR was a direct result of seeing the magic the ensemble was creating while he was a student at Oakland Tech.
Paige, like many of the other ensemble members, appreciates the group synergy and the multifaceted nature of working with the company. In Caught Up, Paige portrays social justice activist Phillip Agnew, a character he can relate to given his own interest in community activism. At the same time, Paige feels that he's stretched as an actor through his opportunities to portray a range of roles with GCR. He recently played a transgender man and appreciated the challenge to "look through the eyes of someone else, to think deeply about this person. I did a lot of research on the role...spoke to transgender friends about their transition process and how they felt. You can't just form an idea of who your character is without putting yourself in their shoes. And if you don't do your due diligence, you run the risk of totally misrepresenting that person."
For Paige, the opportunity to work with GCR also dispels the widespread notion that teens are noncommittal and incapable of producing professional work. "We all have an incredible amount of respect for each other, and we're 100 percent committed. And Lindsay is good at getting people together, making them comfortable and able to share this over a prolonged period of time."
While Krumbein is the heart and soul of GCR, she also works closely with the ensemble's technical director, Casey Fern, who codesigns the sets and does all the building, as well as sound editing and monologue coaching. Board members Colleen Egan and Joel Key have also pitched in on everything from assistant directing to graphic design and outreach.
Local actor Tristan Cunningham is one of GCR's resident artists. She and Krumbein met when Krumbein saw Cunningham perform in Tenderloin, a show produced by the Cutting Ball Theater. Krumbein loved the show and invited Cunningham to do some character work with GCR, particularly in helping the ensemble develop characters based on real people. "She wanted to have the members perform the characters verbatim...every ‘hmmm,' ‘umm,' move and sigh that the person did is repeated during the monologues," says Cunningham.
Throughout the process of making Caught Up, Cunningham saw the youths transform as they became more comfortable with the material and learned to genuinely own it.
"I feel passionate about arts in Oakland," says Cunningham. "It's an area that needs it, and it's full of talented youth. I think it was brave of GCR and Lindsay to do [Caught Up], and I'm honored to be a part of it, because I believe strongly in the work they do."
"She is phenomenal and the kids love her," says Krumbein. When the ensemble performed The Tempest, Cunningham helped with acrobatics. For the next show, she'll be assisting with dance and choreography. In fact, GCR makes it a point to bring in as many guest artists from the local community as it can, from actors trained in fight choreography to local blues musicians.
Despite GCR's ambitious scope and vision, Krumbein's goal has always been to create affordable theatre that gets people through the doors and invites audiences who don't normally make it to the theatre, such as young people and people of color. The company scored six major grants in the past year, but of course, as with most arts nonprofits, fundraising remains a challenge.
"The program is free for participants and families," she says. "I am committed to providing not only the training, but food at rehearsals, BART money as needed to get to and from rehearsals or shows, tickets to see other professional theatre, weekly academic tutoring for members who need and want it and, of course, high production values, which means significant budgets for costuming, props, sets and guest artists."
In terms of what's next for the ensemble, Krumbein knows she wants to keep it small. "Each kid needs to be known and get attention, and feel that emotional and physical love, so I can't see us developing beyond 16 to 18 members."
Krumbein sees GCR teaming up with local writers who are also interested in doing transformative work in the community, but she wants to shy away from "high-school issues plays," she says. "I don't see us doing a play about bullying. I want us to do work that is appropriate for a large-scale ensemble cast, and that is evocative and edgy."
The ensemble's spring show, After Juliet, will premiere in late May at GCR's new permanent home, the Flight Deck, a collaborative arts venue in downtown Oakland. It's a heavy-duty production demanding much in the way of technical detail. Playwright Sharman Macdonald's piece takes place the day after the titular Shakespearean heroine's death, but was flexible enough to take from the streets of Renaissance-era Verona to South Central Los Angeles in 1992. "I decided to set it on the eve of the Rodney King verdict," says Krumbein. "There's a two-story set, an alleyway with towering buildings and lots of stuff on balconies, under balconies and in the shadows. We're also working with a projection artist."
GCR's hard work has paid off in its continually well-received shows. Krumbein has recognized that with each play, audiences express more excitement about the work—feedback that has contributed to the ensemble's steady growth. "It feels like GCR is really impacting their development as young adults in an enormously positive way, and that is really the core of the mission," Krumbein says. "Self-esteem comes when you take personal pride in successes that were rigorous and challenging to achieve, and that's exactly what's happening here."
For more information, visit grittycityrep.org.
Nirmala Nataraj is an arts writer based in San Francisco.