Buffalo teens bring a modern-day theme to Shakespearean classic
Peace Of The City continues providing inner city youth with life, arts and social justice skills. One of its showcase events is Shakespeare Comes to (716). WBFO’s senior reporter Eileen Buckley attended a rehearsal for a modern-day performance of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at the Shea’s Smith Theatre, featuring a diverse cast and crew of 50-Buffalo teens.
It’s not a place you would expect to find teenagers during their summer break – but inside the small theater on Main Street, in the city’s theater district, students were running through a their version of the classic Shakespeare comedy.
They've set it inside a Buffalo neighborhood bar with beer and chicken wings. However, it features the traditional sexist attitudes of the male roles in the Taming of the Shrew against the females, along with domestic violence – a very serious theme relevant today.
Peace Of The City has tied this to the powerful #metoo movement.
“And what we’re saying is we’ve decided to question it. This play has been treated largely as a comedy – historically – and we’ve decided to treat it as a tragedy because that’s what we think it is,” explained Diann Takens, founder and executive director of Peace Of The City.
This play features two new roles added to the tradition plot.
“A voice of consciousness to both the main male and female characters. It has been scary to go this far outside of the box, but that’s where we felt the cultural reality is telling us to be in order to be relevant and teenagers and young adults want to be relevant,” Takens said.
The Peace Of The City program keeps teens focused, disciplined and working as a team. Lawrence Russell is playing one of the lead male roles. This fall he will begin his second year of high school at the Emerson Annex in south Buffalo.
Russell calls the acting group as his “family” and his “happy place”.
“So I came here 2015 – I was 13 – I felt out of place because I didn’t know anybody the first time and then they welcomed me with warm arms and I’m thinking this is a good place – this is a good opportunity for me to go somewhere and I can actually go somewhere with people behind me who have my back,” Russell described. “Some people – they really don’t care about you, but like this is a group of people who actually care and they want you to do something and they want you to strive to be excellent.”
“What this ultimately is – is soul building. This accesses the deepest part of these young people,” Takens noted.
“Yeah, it helps everyone because once we see someone who has an attitude or is down we always come and try to cheer them and ask them if they are okay – we are like a little family,” described Hellen Modi.
Modi is acting for the first time, playing the lead role of Katerina. She just graduated from Mount Mercy Academy in south Buffalo and will attend Mercyhurst University this fall. She stages a very aggressive fight scene with another cast member, and said acting in a Shakespearian plan proves “you can do anything”.
WBFO asked her what it is like to play the lead role. “It’s kind of difficult because I’m not like that in real life, so I guess you can say it’s really challenging, but because of my friends and all the workers at Peace Of The City – they help me become this person,” replied Modi.
Peace of The City founder Takens noted this play features a diverse group of students.
“There’s gay and straight, multiple religions, multiple languages, multiple countries represented here, the indigenous poor, generational Buffalonians – we all come together and when we started rehearsals down here, I said to them, 'Next time anyone tries to in anyway put a wedge between you and anybody else – remember this experience,'” Takens recalled.
“It’s amazing. It’s like when have you ever heard of a group of teenagers – let alone this diverse amount of teenagers – do Shakespeare – that’s never been heard of,” declared Rashed Elwaseem.
Elwaseem came from Yemen eleven years ago. He will be entering his junior year at Hutch Tech. He’s also in a lead role – playing Lucentio – the lover boy.
“It’s just amazing to represent my country – top of all – my family – my parents they work hard to give me the life that I have right now and I’m just trying to bring a little light on what’s going on today with the whole #metoo,” Elwaseem said.
We did asked Elwaseem about this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding President Trump’s travel ban affecting five Muslim countries.
“We know there are people out there like President Trump that have his mindset and I really just try to accept all that I face and just go on with life, just keep pushing all the negative stuff down and just go to do – because at the end – there’s a ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow,” replied Elwaseem.
Elwaseem actually has a dream of someday becoming a lawyer and perhaps a politician, saying he loves the ‘art of debate’.
“And hopefully one day I will go into politics – you know – hopefully be the first U.S. Yemen senator,” Elwaseem responded.
Elsweem said acting in the Shakespeare play has given him “courage” and he realizes anything is possible in America.
Taming of the Shrew, at Shea’s Smith Theatre, runs Friday through Saturday and it is a “Pay What You Can” performance.