February 13, 2009

“Kingdom” Comes Southeast

By Michael Klam

Over the next two weeks, the Lincoln High School Center for the Arts in collaboration with The Old Globe will present a performance that is sure to hit close to home.

“Kingdom” chronicles the lives of two inner-city youths who join a street gang (The Latin Kings) in search of honor, brotherhood, respect and power.

A struggle for dominance tears their friendship apart, and tragedy ensues.

“Kingdom,” which won a 2008 Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named “Outstanding New Musical” of the 2006 summer season by Talkin’ Broadway, features an original hip-hop/rock/Latin score created by author Aaron Jafferis and composer Ian Williams.

The show has been hailed for its ability to denounce street violence while making a strong case for rap and hip-hop as compelling contemporary musical theater.

Yet the playwright does not present the two main characters to moralize or preach.

“The show is based in part on people who I knew or know,” Jafferis said.

Growing up in New Haven, Conn., one of Jafferis’ friends from elementary school was later murdered by a rival drug dealer, and another committed suicide.

The two youths took different paths than the writer.

“I’ve had a blessed life in terms of opportunities and support, friends and family,” he said.

“Kingdom is my attempt to figure out what happened, where their lives took them, trying to understand how they ended up where they did,” he explained.

Jafferis and Williams started writing “Kingdom” as their thesis at New York University in part to learn to “inhabit other people and to tell human stories rather than just try to make a point,” Jafferis said.

The lives of the play’s main characters, Andres and Juan, will likely resonate with high school students that attend the musical for free at the Lincoln Center.

Having seen, participated or been victims of gang pressures or violence, the students will experience firsthand the expression and catharsis of poetry and performance on stage.

The Old Globe has also installed the lyricist and composer as artists in residence at Lincoln High. The artists are currently working with 20 students to create a hip-hop play in response to “Kingdom” based on the students’ own lives, according to Jafferis.

“‘Kingdom’ is a piece that young people and their families should see together,” said Louis G. Spisto, executive producer of The Old Globe.

By telling the story of these two youths, Spisto said, the piece gives an urgent message about gang violence in our communities.

With “Kingdom,” the Globe also makes a statement to the arts community by presenting the musical both at the new state-of-the-art center in Southeast San Diego and on the Globe’s main stage.

“Many subscribers are already buying tickets,” Spisto said. The piece’s hip-hop and Latin rock style could also inspire a broader crowd — those not currently coming to the Globe — to take in a show at Balboa Park, he said.

Jafferis agreed: “I’m really excited in particular about these performances in San Diego. I see it both as a great test and opportunity for the show to play in front of diverse audiences.”

The lyricist said the music and the human story are strong enough to speak to established regional audiences.

“The places that we’ve done the show, adults and upper middle class patrons have been just as enthusiastic as the young people who have seen it,” he explained.

The production of “Kingdom” marks an important moment in The Old Globe’s first year of artistic programs in Southeast San Diego and at home.

“The Globe’s relationships in Southeast San Diego are growing by leaps and bounds,” Spisto said.

The Globe’s 43,000-square-foot Technical Center on Market Street has quickly established itself as a center for creation and implementation of new works, building partnerships and providing training for artists, area residents and students.

“We are very honored to be working with The Old Globe and to host such a play as ‘Kingdom,’” said Vernon Moore, principal at Lincoln High.

Writerz Block, a graffiti arts and education studio in Southeast San Diego, did the artwork for the set.

The entire student body will have the opportunity to see the musical, and Jafferis hopes to inspire them to stop imitating the hip-hop that’s out there and start telling their own unique stories, he said.

And “Kingdom” could serve as a mechanism for awareness across communities.

“Part of Ian’s and my goal is to show the damage of a past of violence and retaliation,” he said, “and that these are the choices that young people face.

“There is so much needed in terms of education in so many of our urban neighborhoods,” he explained. “We need reallocation of resources and to reprioritize education for the young people who we have largely abandoned.”

“Kingdom,” directed by Ron Daniels, will run for 14 performances from Feb. 12 to Feb. 22 at the Lincoln High School Center for the Arts (Feb. 12-15) and at The Old Globe Theatre (Feb. 19-22). For more information, visit www.oldglobe.org.

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