More a memorial service than a play, The Ballad of Trayvon Martin at New Freedom Theatre — in the beautiful, underused John E. Allen Jr. Theatre, in the Edwin Forrest mansion — doesn't really share a story. What story exists isn't long, and we already know how it ends.
Guest Artistic Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has conceived and directed plays like this before; his Barrymore-nominated Little Rock at Trenton, NJ's Passage Theatre Company explored similar historical territory with an ensemble cast.
More theatrical than dramatic
Here, though, the world premiere Ballad is a collage, often theatrical though not always dramatic — expressive, but not suspenseful. The action occurs on steps in front of a gate (scenic design by Parris Bradley), "the place where the Light and the Dark meet," according to the program, but you know what it really is — where newly dead Trayvon meets Emmett Till. Ballad makes a powerful connection between Trayvon, killed in 2012 by a Florida vigilante, and Till, tortured and executed by a gang of white men in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till's mother's defiant eulogy, along with actual photos of his battered body, which she insisted be shown to expose his killers' brutality, resonates powerfully with Trayvon's situation and those of other victims of racial violence.
What happened is less important in Ballad than the emotions it unleashes. Not that Ballad is inaccurate or unfair. By all accounts, Trayvon's killer, George Zimmerman, is as much a piece of human garbage as Ballad shows; opening night coincided with his (unsuccessful) attempt to auction the gun he used to kill Martin. But the show’s purpose isn't to parse events, examine evidence, or debate political issues such as Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law. Instead, it batters us with raw passion.
Maharaj and Thomas J. Soto's script uses transcripts, recorded commentary, and even tweets, including some hilariously shallow celebrity responses, to express the emotional toll of Trayvon's case and many others like it. Lists of victims are starkly devastating, as are the protracted eulogies from Trayvon's parents.
A new play with promise
The piece could be shorter — it's a new work, often repetitious — but its displays of grief and frustration are palpable, and sometimes overwhelming. To this, Maharaj adds staging flourishes: Trayvon, played by Amir Randall, is accompanied in dance by two "Black Boys in Hoodies," Julian Darden and Stanley Morrison, physically articulating and amplifying Trayvon's feelings and experiences with impressive skill.
Five other actors play multiple roles: Shabazz Green is Trayvon's father Tracy and an impressive range of characters from President Obama to Emmett Till. Angel Brice plays Trayvon's mother Sybrina, and Till's mother, among others. Christopher David Roche is Trayvon's killer, and Michael Fegley is sometimes his brother, other times his father, and Donna Cherry fills many small yet distinctive roles. They all appear in black hoodies (costumes by Millie Hiibel), standing in solidarity with Trayvon, unified in spirit.
The theatrical spectacle, which includes tweets, photos, and videos projected on two screens as well as music and dance, can't match the emotional spectacle. It's all too much in Act II, when Trayvon — wearing angelic white, now barefoot — makes an impassioned but convoluted speech that sounds nothing like the character Randall embodied earlier. Less, this production shows, can be more.
The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, despite its flaws, probes an open wound in American society that requires urgent attention. It's a brave, passionate return by New Freedom Theatre, soon celebrating 50 years, and one of only five of the dozens of African-American theater companies founded in the 1960s that’s still producing. Let's hope this is the beginning of another 50.