August 2, 2016
By Rianna Lee
When the lights dimmed at the New Hazlett Theater on Friday night, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I remembered what my high school musicals were like – mildly entertaining but usually forgettable (sorry Mr. Richey). When the company emerged for the first number – full of rage and raw emotion, sporting t-shirts with phrases like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Unapologetically Black” – I knew I was in for a powerful, unforgettable show.
The show was American Idiot, a stage adaptation of punk rock band Green Day’s rock opera by the same name. From beginning to end, the all-black cast from Pittsburgh’s Alumni Theater Company, whose mission is “to create bold theatrical work that gives fresh voice to the experience of young urban artists and highlights their rich contribution to our community,” captivated the audience with powerful vocals and an even more powerful message about struggling to find yourself when you’re constantly barraged with social media and useless information.
The show follows three friends, Johnny (Shamari Nevels), Tunny (James Perry), and Will (Shae Wofford). Sick of the numbing monotony of suburbia, Johnny and Tunny venture into the city, while Will stays to work things out with his pregnant girlfriend (Tyra Jamison). Tunny has trouble adjusting to life in the city, and becomes seduced by a TV ad for the army. Meanwhile, Johnny falls in love with a girl. His rebellious inner self comes alive in the form of St. Jimmy (Lyn Starr), and their romance becomes a whirlwind of partying and drugs. I won’t ruin the ending of the show for those who have not seen it, but I will say that the director and the cast did an amazing job adapting the plot line to the times, and making it relatable for millennials of all racial and cultural backgrounds who grew up in the era of Facebook and Twitter.
In the program, a note from director Hallie Donner reads, “It’s not just selfies and funny little kid quotes. There are the videos. The videos of Black people being shot by the police. Of the Black mother’s reaction to her son being killed. Of Black protestors being abused by white counter-protesters. Of Black teenagers profiled by school security. And the institutional racism in comments like, ‘Why can’t we just agree that All Lives Matter?’ How can you breathe? As a young Black American, how can you grow into your own when you are surrounded by this?” These questions become the centerpiece of the show as the struggles of Johnny, Tunny, and Will unfold in front of a giant TV screen that flashes with viral video clips about millennial entitlement and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, Facebook and Twitter aren’t entirely bad. I’ve connected with a number of people that I wouldn’t have otherwise because of social media, like long-lost friends and family members. But cast member Lyn Starr says, “Media can be, and has been[,] a very destructive tool. We have reached a point where evil is approached with a nonchalant attitude.” When videos of violent acts against a general population of people are regularly going viral, we develop this sort of numbness to cope with it. We shrug it off as something that happens because “that’s just how it is.” But when we adopt this sort of mentality, nothing ever changes. That is why this show resonated so much with me as an activist, and as a supporter and ally to Black Lives Matter and the Black community.
Starr went on to say, “Too many people are comfortable with watching people get gunned down, watching tyrants run our country, and living in ignorance… ATC will show you that change only comes from being uncomfortable. No more will we sit down and watch people get oppressed.” I think this young man, only 20 years old, captured the true essence of the show and the mission of many millennials. Yes, change is uncomfortable and scary, but we can no longer sit back in silence and watch oppression unfold before our eyes. We are tired of waking up every morning to news of another Black person being gunned down, another Muslim person being profiled, or another Latinx person being deported for trying to create a better life for themselves and their families. Much like Johnny, Tunny, and Will were tired of the numbing monotony of suburbia, we are tired of the numbing monotony of violence and hatred in our country. We are ready to venture into the unknown city of Change – even if it is daunting – because anything would be better than living in Fear.
Sadly, there will be no more showings of American Idiot, but you can check out Alumni Theater Company’s website here to stay updated on new and upcoming shows and productions.
Rianna is a summer intern for the Thomas Merton Center and a senior at Duquesne University, studying international relations and sociology. She is interested in law and public policy surrounding gender and women’s rights.