Splashed across the windows of a rundown building in an inner-city neighborhood are the words, “HEY YOU! Stop whining about civil liberties. A POLICE STATE is a SAFE STATE.”
The teens in this town, incensed by a recent murder, are singing and rapping about police brutality, mass incarceration and systematic discrimination of their friends and neighbors, all while celebrating three Ivy League-bound youths who, above all, symbolize hope for this community.
Modern racial tensions and historical traumas bubble up through the societal cracks of a Brooklyn neighborhood in “Remnants,” a new musical co-written by Richmond professor Patricia Herrera premiering Thursday at the Modlin Center for the Arts.
The show runs Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., and features direction and a book by Herrera and playwright José Joaquin Garcia. Garcia co-wrote the score with composer Jesse Myerson, and this team of authors has been supported throughout the show’s development and first staging by University of Richmond's department of theatre and dance.
It’s not every year that Richmond stages a world premiere of an original work, but Garcia said this process had allowed students to encounter issues they may not have otherwise normally confronted. “I have a teenager, and I always imagine that I have to have conversations with him about police officers, knowing that there are other teenagers who don’t have to have conversations about that because of the communities in which they live,” Garcia said. “I wanted to do something that would inform an audience.”
In the piece, three high school graduates are on the cusp of leaving the “ghetto” for bright academic futures. On the eve of the block party celebrating their successes, they witness a murder and must reconcile themselves with the violence that so often characterizes their community. Through a blur of modern fusion beats from an onstage DJ, choreography steeped in hip-hop and frequent monologues spun flawlessly in the form of rap verses, the show offers up something that the average musical theatre audience, used to glitzy, emotional displays, may not normally see.
“I think a big part of our philosophy and concept of the piece is that we live in times of crisis, and one of the crises is the remnants of slavery,” Herrera said. “Though slavery happened hundreds of years ago – it seems that way, though there are still forms of slavery today – the trauma and the violence still exist.”
In telling a story steeped in historical issues, composer Myerson and choreographer Alicia Diaz derived their artistic goals with similar perspectives in mind.
“That atmosphere of repression and exploitation gave rise to some really incredible music styles, and we’re exploring all of those,” Myerson said. “From the earliest American black spirituals, through hip-hop, passing by jazz, soul, gospel – it’s all in there. All of these musical styles are themselves remnants of slavery, but in a different way.”
“Hip-hop as a dance form is also in the same lineage of African-American dances that date back to the history and experience of slavery, so that’s a very important part of the choices that we’ve made in this piece,” said Diaz, who worked with Garcia and Jorge “Pop Master Fabel” Pabon, a professional hip-hop choreographer.
“In terms of the choreography, that’s been something that’s completely new for me. All of a sudden doing hip-hop, and popping and locking – I have to tap into a whole different part of my body,” said cast member Jacob Litt, RC ’18. “Everyone started out a bit clunky with it, but now it’s getting to the point where it comes naturally, and that’s really cool to see because I never expected I’d be able to do it.”
The show’s premiere has come after almost four years of on-and-off work developing the piece, including readings and workshops at Richmond. “It was a blessing. These are the situations that you dream of,” Garcia said about working at Richmond. “They’ve created such a wonderful space for us to work in our laboratory.”
That “laboratory” includes stunning, evocative lights, costumes and sets designed by Maja White, Johann Stegmei, and Reed West, respectively, which encapsulate the actors’ performances in a whirling array of color.
For Litt, performing in this show is enriching because of its originality. “The fact that we’re sort of the building blocks of this musical that has never been staged before now. It’s a lot of fun and a really interesting and worthwhile experience.”
The show’s creators hope to elicit emotional responses from their audiences and set stirring conversations about race and place in our country. “I hope the audiences – especially some of the students – walk away with an awareness of the types of experiences other people face, and the circumstances they have to deal with, and be more empathetic with these situations,” Herrera said.
“I think to talk about race, and to talk about our past, is not to divide us, it’s to make us stronger,” Garcia said. “And we can do it; it’s time. We have to.”
For more information on “Remnants,” visit the Modlin Center’s website.
Contact reporter Chase Brightwell at firstname.lastname@example.org