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Shakespeare Comes to 716

Jeannine O'Brian/WBFO
Peace of the City rehearses at Renovation Church Monday

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – There have been many versions of "Romeo and Juliet." But probably none that looked quite like the one that's coming to north west Buffalo Friday night. Shakespeare Comes to 716 is an urban remix of the classic tragedy. It is a production of Peace of the City, based at Renovation Church on Hertel.

The Christian group offers a variety of services for at-risk teens. The fifty-five member cast is made up of teens who come from some of Buffalo's most troubled neighborhoods.

Program leaders say their hope is that the experience will help re-write many would-be tragic endings.

Click the audio player above to hear Joyce Kryszak's full story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.

Click the video player to watch clips from a rehearsal and Joyce Kryszak's interviews with Megan McClain Kwacz, artistic director, and two cast members.

In just one scene you can quickly hear that this Shakespeare is definitely not boring. Even Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Daines would wither under this retelling of the familiar story.

With apologies to Shakespeare, this version of Romeo and Juliet mixes old English with urban slang. That's just fine with Caitlin Blue who plays Lady Montague. The 14-year old said it gives her some pretty good lines.

But Caitlin doesn't have any trouble with the original language either. This is one urban teen who is no stranger to Shakespeare. Caitlin said she has loved Shakespeare since she was old enough to read it.

But Caitlin admits her passion for Shakespeare isn't typical. She said most city kids her age think Shakespeare is boring, and irrelevant. So, it would seem like a strange pick for an urban teen production. But then, Peace of the City has a way of shaking up expectations. The group provides homework help and literacy training for teens through creative programming and partnerships.

Diane Taken Cerbone is Executive Director. Last year, Taken-Cerbone heard Shakespeare read at the funeral for her friend's daughter. Taken Cerbone suddenly realized that Shakespeare's ability to capture the pained human experience might help their kids.

But getting the young actors to emotionally connect with Shakespeare took some careful tweaking of the story, as well as the language.

Megan McClain-Kwacz is the artistic director and writer of the remix. In this story the divide is between two city high schools. And no one takes their own life. McCalin Kwacz said that staging a double suicide was not an option for them. But she said the main themes are intact. And she said Shakespeare's lesson here is perhaps even more profound.

Romeo's peace making cousin Benvolio is played by Nyquato Cole. The 15-year old wanted the part of Romeo. But Nyquato said he thinks he got the better part after all. Nyquato said he relates to Benvolio. The east side teen said he tries hard to live his life as a peace maker. But Nyquato said it's a lot easier playing peace maker on the stage.

"On the streets you can get shot just for trying to be the peace maker," said Cole.

The kids not only memorized long complicated lines, but they staged tightly choreographed dance scenes. And they made the sets and costumes. It's taken long hours and regular rehearsals over the past two months when most other kids were enjoying time off from school. But artistic director McCalin Kwacz says they're taking away something they'd never get hanging on the streets - pride and a sense of family.

The public is invited to come to see the show Friday night. It is being staged at Renovation Church on Hertel Avenue, the former St. Florian's. Doors open at 6:15 PM and the show starts at 7:00 PM.