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Flipping the Script
Teens use theater to combat violence
Sashwat Adhikari

One evening in April, 50 people packed themselves into a small storefront space in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was there among the crowd to watch a performance by members of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YO S.O.S), a group of teens organizing against gun violence in the neighborhood. As the room filled up, they sat in the front two rows, wearing T-shirts that read STOP SHOOTING START LIVING.

The goal of the night was to promote a better understanding of conflict and how to resolve it peacefully. As part of its leadership training, YO S.O.S teaches teens to understand how and why situations can become heated, and how they might be safely de-escalated. The group also partners with local arts organizations to communicate its anti-violence message in creative ways. One of these is Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, which performs bold and thought-provoking plays about conflict and oppression.

For those who are unfamiliar with their style of plays, here is a quick rundown: The actors perform the play from start to finish, depicting various scenarios of injustice, discrimination, and plain bad decisions. Then the audience steps in. One member of the audience is chosen to act as a “spectactor,” or a spectator who becomes an actor. It’s up to them to try to do whatever they can to change the negative outcome of the play into a positive one. By getting audience members to participate, Theatre of the Oppressed gets them participating in the conversation to work against violence.

No Stage Fright for Me

I got a taste of this firsthand that night. The play YO S.O.S. put on, “99 Problems,” was about a girl facing numerous challenges who has nobody to speak to for support. Her teacher, her mother, her guidance counselor, and her friends all refuse to treat her fairly. On top of that, her boyfriend asks her to hold his gun for him while he evades the authorities.

As you may suspect, this ends up going poorly for everyone involved. The protagonist’s grades suffer, her relationships with her friends and family worsen, and she ends up being cheated on by her boyfriend. The last moments of the play were chaos: In the heat of an intense argument, the gun went off. Although we couldn’t know for sure who it hurt, it’s safe to say that there was no happy ending.

After the play was over, we were asked to raise our hands if we had an idea for how to improve the situation. I raised my hand, but I wasn’t expecting to be picked as the first spectactor. The audience greeted me with applause as I made my way to the front of the room.

Now I had to pick the scene which I was going to re-enact. “Um, I think I’ll do the one right before her boyfriend gives her the gun,” I said, still not 100% sure how I was going to pull this off. I didn’t have much time to think it over though, since I had to focus on getting into character. I was going to play the girl at the center of the story.

My “boyfriend” sat next to me playing video games and ignoring me. The actress who originally played the protagonist had taken the gun without putting up much of a fight. I decided to get more confrontational, acting out what I figured everyone was thinking.

image by YC-Art Dept

“What gun?” I demanded loudly. “You want to put me in danger by holding your gun for you? That’s pretty selfish.”

The audience seemed to enjoy my rant. I decided to finish by doing something I thought the protagonist should have done long ago. “You know what?” I said as I got up. “I can’t do this anymore.” I walked off the stage, not once touching the gun I was supposed to take.

Peaceful Resolutions

After that I got to see other spectactors play out their ideas to resolve the conflict. One participant reenacted the scene in which the protagonist tries to get her mother to support her goal to attend Howard, a prestigious university. Although her grades were above average, her mother refused to believe in her and shut her down.

While the actress who originally played the girl fought with her mother, the spectactor (a guy playing a girl), chose to be more diplomatic and get on the mom’s good side. He asked the mother if she needed help cooking and tried to explain to her why it was so important that she get accepted to Howard. When approached this way, the mother was more understanding and began to support her daughter’s goal.

Playing Out Real-World Problems

It was an enjoyable but also educational experience. The play was about real-world problems that can lead to tense and violent situations. Plenty of people can relate to the main character and the things that she went through; I’ve sometimes felt like I had no one to share my issues with. Through the interventions, the audience got to “test out” solutions that might work to improve her situation.

The most important thing I took away from this performance is that violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Someone who hurts another person may be going through something difficult, or been hurt themselves in the past. For example, the boyfriend in the play decided to carry a gun because his dad had just been a victim of gun violence. He believed that owning a gun was necessary to survive in his neighborhood. By including that detail in the story, the play shows that the “bad guy” isn’t simply a monster: His choices are directly informed by the long cycle of violence around him.

YO S.O.S. looks at the big picture, taking into account the different struggles in a person’s life that might cause them to become involved in gun violence. While these influences don’t excuse that person’s harmful behavior, they highlight areas where a community can provide support and work to prevent it from happening again.

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