Race was on the top of everyone’s mind the evening of Friday, Aug. 1, at Syracuse Stage’s Storch Theater, where The Media Unit performed its NAACP award-winning play, From the Back of the Bus.
The teen-driven performance and production troupe performed for what founder Walt Shepperd deemed a “family circle” crowd of about 40 (Shepperd is also a writer for the New Times). The audience, made of mostly family members of the performers, was keenly engaged as five actors discussed race, identity and difference in modern America.
Beijing Saleem, 16, who plays Aquila, performed a monologue challenging the value of affirmative action in schools.
“I can see the white kids thinking it,” she said. “‘You know why she’s here, don’t you?’”
But that’s just it: Even Aquila doesn’t know why she was accepted. Was it her years of hard work? Or is she just there to fill a quota?
As the character Malik, Deion J. Patterson, 20, explored the confusion of “white hat” versus “black hat,” and how it’s OK to be confused about right and wrong when you’re just a kid, figuring it all out. Riley Wiegand, 14, played Geraldine, a white girl with many black heroes, who ponders the existence of a “model white person.”
In addition to monologues, the performance featured singing and choreographed dancing. The production was directed by Ana-Rachel Richardson, 19, a sophomore at that State University College at Oswego and a Media Unit alumna. The singers were coached by James Patterson, the lead singer of the Syracuse R&B group the BlackLites. The three women (Saleem, Weigand and Shauna Cheatham, 17) crafted beautiful harmonies. Dance segments featuring all five cast members were executed with precision and energy.
The young performers, who are paid for both performance and rehearsal time, are all worth watching as they move on from the Media Unit. Shepperd said that 80 percenty of alumni of the 38-year-old group go on to real jobs in the media and performing arts industries.
Friday’s event was part of a series of events hosted by Interfaith Works as part of their Community Wide Dialogue to End Racism program. Derrick Dorsey, the program director and a Media Unit alumnus, moderated a discussion after the performance. Community members expressed their awe at the courage the actors displayed in delving into such complex material. They also agreed that racism still exists in America despite being hidden, rather than overt, as it was in past.
“For years we were forced to the back of the bus,” said one community member. “Now we willingly go back there.”
Cast members also shared stories about why the show resonated with them. Elijah Sheridan, 17, who played a character named Spike, spoke candidly about his own experiences with discrimination. His mother is a lesbian, and he has been bullied because of it. It was a challenge, he said, to put himself in his tormenters’ shoes and play the bully. But presenting more than one side of the story is part of how Media Unit seeks to teach others to open up and speak up about injustice.
Earlier in the week, the group performed for children ages 6 to 14. Centro provided the children with free bus transportation, and Syracuse Stage allowed the Media Unit to use the Storch Theater for free. Shepperd said the goal was to bring together “white kids from the county” and “black kids from the city,” and to encourage them to learn about one another and accept others for their differences.
Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler was among the introductory speakers on Friday and participated in the discussion. When asked by Dorsey what the “key” to ending racism is, the chief summed up the evening well.
“We need to stop turning our backs, ignoring the problem and assuming that it will take care of itself,” he said. “We can’t keep saying, ‘It’s someone else’s problem, not ours.’ It takes effort and courage. We have more power than we think.”
The Media Unit will perform From the Back of the Bus Wednesday, Aug. 6, at Kirk Park; Thursday, Aug. 7, at the Northeast Community Center; and Friday, Aug. 8, at the Southwest Community Center. Performances begin at 1 p.m. and are free.