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How the arts can help children think about gun violence

William Electric Black's theater projects have been seen in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.
New York University
William Electric Black's theater projects have been seen in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.

William Electric Black is a name familiar to audiences at the small experimental theaters of Manhattan's East Village and it's also becoming known by educators and people in law enforcement who are trying to reach children in New York about gun violence.

A former writer for Sesame Street, Electric, as everyone calls him, is passionate about the role education can play in reducing gun violence. He sums up this educational philosophy as "go in and go early."

"You need to start when they're 3 and 4 because by the time they're in middle school, they're thinking about a gun or 'I gotta get a gun to protect myself from the other kids that have guns,'" said Electric. "This is the time to get them to see there's another way."

Chauncey Parker, NYPD's Deputy Commissioner for Community Partnerships, and Kristy De La Cruz, superintendent of Community School District 4, have been working with Electric to create a small pilot program on gun violence at an elementary school in East Harlem. The hope is for it to begin sometime in the 2022 - 2023 school year. Electric's time on Sesame Street and the subsequent work he's done creating educational videos on health issues make him an attractive partner in such a venture, said De La Cruz.

"Mr. William Electric Black has a proven track record with his advocacy for public health and wellness," she said. "He's someone who is deeply committed to serving the community. And it's not just like he's coming in with [his own] ideas. He wants to co-create lessons in collaboration with the community."

After watching President Biden's televised address on mass shootings, Electric told NPR, "The president said, 'Do something.' That's me. I'm devastated by what's happening but you can't let that choke you and do nothing."

He felt a need to create socially-conscious plays for children

Born Ian Ellis James, he created the stage name William Electric Black while attending Southern Illinois University in Carbondale for graduate school. William in homage to Shakespeare, Electric because of his goal of electrifying audiences and Black as a nod to his African-American heritage. He was offered a teaching job at the university but he couldn't shake the sight of the Confederate flags hanging in some Carbondale bars.

<em>A Gun is Not Fun,</em> a children's book by William Electric Black.
/ Ian Ellis James
/
Ian Ellis James
<em>A Gun is Not Fun,</em> a children's book by William Electric Black.

So, he returned to New York and started writing and directing quirky musicals in the East Village. One was titled Doo Wop Dracula. Another, Betty and the Belrays was about a white all-girl group. His 2005 musical Cellphones lampooned soccer moms, Michael Jackson and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In addition to the off-beat musicals, Electric has directed serious life and death dramas, including The Lonely Soldier Monologues about the sexual harassment of female soldiers in Iraq.

In 2013, with the seemingly endless reports of inner-city shootings gnawing at him, Electric vowed to write a series of plays about gun violence. He wrote five of them, which he refers to as his "Gunplays."

The first play, Welcome Home, Sonny T, told the story of an Afghan vet who gets killed en route to his welcome home party. When Black Boys Die told the tragic tale of a promising high school athlete who died by gunfire. His mother ordered her surviving daughter to keep a list of subsequent homicide victims at their housing project.

But it's The Faculty Room that critics have called thought-provoking and relevant. Members of James Baldwin High School find themselves on lockdown after one of two feuding members of the girls' basketball team brought a gun to school. There's a scene where a girl reads aloud her essay imagining a world without guns. She refers to the mass shootings at Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the police killing of an unarmed man named Sean Bell on his wedding day, and the deaths of five cops in Dallas.

In 2016 a New York Times reviewer caught a performance of The Death of a Black Man (a Walk By), the last of the five Gunplays staged at The Theater for the New City. The reviewer wondered whether theater has the power to stop gun violence. William Electric Black believes that it does.

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