A congregation of men gather together in ceremony, calling to the Nigerian goddess of love and sweet waters, Oshun. Circling a white-linen river, they asked a series of questions, all relating to love: What is love? How do we find it? Why does it feel so good? Why can it hurt so badly?
These queries and more were posed and answered in Sweet Water, an original, ensemble-created work presented earlier this month at New York City Center Stage II as a part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s education program, Stargate Theatre. Love, it turns out, “is a hot grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup” and “the taste of your mother’s cornbread,” the performers shared. Sounds about right.
Founded in 2013, Stargate Theatre has been working with young people facing poverty, trauma, and involvement with the justice system for more than 25 years. The program hires young individuals identifying as male who have been involved with the justice system to create and perform an original play, with the aim of providing them with valuable skills, as well as financial compensation. Participants learn to think critically, trust and connect with their peers, and articulate ideas and experience in a way that makes the listener empathize with them. Over seven weeks each summer, 22 young men meet four to five times each week to write, rehearse, and learn how to make art out of their daily lives. This summer’s ensemble was named “The Sharon Sullivan Company” in honor of a generous long-term gift made by MTC board member Sharon Sullivan and her husband Jeffrey B. Kindler.
Part poetry, part ritual, and part documentary, the Sharon Sullivan Company incorporated real stories and points of view from company members, woven together into a script by Emmy-winning writer Judy Tate, who serves as the program’s artistic director. Tate has been working with incarcerated youth for more than 10 years.
“One of the reasons I feel so dedicated to these young men is that maybe they come from areas that have been left behind,” said Tate in a video about Stargate. “If you’ve been arrested for the first time and you’ve done some time on Rikers, there’s a lot going on with you. A lot of time they’ll be wary of anyone who seems like an authority figure and they walk into this room and here I am, putting them in this situation where we’re asking them to play. Gradually over the course of time, their shoulders start to go down and their backs start to straighten up, and sometimes you start to see a smile where you might not have seen a smile before.”
The workshop is administered by Tate, production director Shaun Peknic, and company manager Paul Gutkowski. The playmaking process involves the company members writing anecdotes from their lives based off prompts that are eventually be dramatized and staged. In the hour-long Sweet Water, the company members dove deep into stories of family, romantic relationships, battles with personal demons, relationships with America, and more. The company used a variety of tactics to express themselves, including realistic scenes, personal monologues, group recitation, and sketch comedy. A handful of company members were returning for their fourth and even fifth consecutive year with MTC.
The performance was packed with poignant moments audience members later got a chance to share feedback about. Many of these touched on themes of racial identity, economic strife, and interactions with a racist justice system.
In one particular section, the group in unison offered the assertion/question, “I love America, but does America love me?” This segment really sunk its teeth into the feelings of isolation these young men experience in relation to society. Many related stories about how they receive dirty looks, degrading comments, and reactions of fear from strangers perceiving them as “thugs” on a daily basis. Through poetry they expressed how they feel about having stereotyped identities imposed upon them.
Company member Christopher McKenny performed a chilling speech about the exclusion of LGBTQ love from the American narrative. “It was so important for me to tell this story because so often in the Black community LGBTQ stories are not acknowledged or viewed as valid,” said McKenny after the show. “You can’t say Black lives matter but these ones don’t.”
Other standout moments came during the “shadows” scenes, in which company members talked about battling the dark parts of themselves and accepting those parts of their past. In another section, four men played mothers and four played children begging for attention, and being pushed aside, illustrating the theme of desire for familial love.
These emotional peaks were interspersed with heartfelt comic moments. In one, Dylan Henry played a YouTube vlogger describing a new diet plan, eating air, which filled the room with uproarious laughter. And some of the most moving moments were positive ones involving self-love and acceptance. At one point Charlie Santiago, as a character contemplating a relapse into drug use in the wake of a broken heart, picked up an acoustic guitar and put his feelings into song instead.
In the post-performance talkback, company members spoke about their experience revisiting and sharing their past with the group.
“The process for this—it was long,” said company member Keybo Carillo. “It was a lot of fun. It hurt sometimes, but when we got together and actually sat down and put our thoughts together we realized most of us go through the same things. It’s just a different kind of perspective. It was hard trying to put our truth out there, not knowing how the audience would really take it in. So when we had that chance to sit down and be like, ‘Yo, I went through this,’ ‘That’s crazy, I’m going through the same thing, just different’—we’re all playing the same game, just a different battlefield.”
Company member Solomon Levine talked about the emotional intelligence he gained through the program. “We’re acting, obviously, but it’s based off of real stories or completely true,” he shared. “You know when you get up there, and everybody’s looking at you and you’re speaking about stuff that really happened and really affects you, it gets to you sometimes. There’s not a lot of space for young men to be emotional with each other, ’cause that’s seen as feminine or something, so we don’t get chances like that. You can’t be yourself or connect with other people, ’cause you’d be afraid or embarrassed of how other people look at you. So that’s a big thing—this is a ritual to put out what we want to put out about ourselves.”
While Sweet Water acknowledged its participants “demons” and their efforts to move on from them, there was an overriding sense of them honoring their past, present, and future selves. There is no use in trying to erase life experiences, but rather to embrace the lessons along the way. Many of the young men spoke about the virtues they were able to glean from their experiences in gangs, such as loyalty and brotherhood. There was something to be gained, they felt, even from paths that could be seen as dark.
In the end, love won in Sweet Water. As one audience put it during the talkback, “I thought it was so cool that there was a theme of love running through the piece, and then at the end when you guys were in that final picture I found myself saying, ‘Oh, I kinda love them.’”
Imagine what a different world we could have if we didn’t berate or punish people for their pasts, but offered rooms for them to speak and a sympathetic ear. To learn more about other theatre programs for previously incarcerated youths, click here.