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‘Welcome Home Sonny T’ tackles prejudice, gun violence

Maya Phillips | 12/19/2013, 12:17 p.m.
"Welcome Home Sonny T" written by William Electric Black

In a time when gun violence seems to be the most frequent cause of death of Black children in America, Theater for the New City’s new show “Welcome Home Sonny T” addresses the fatal epidemic and provides a message of peace, accountability and hope.

“Welcome Home Sonny T,” written by William Electric Black (also known as Ian Ellis James, a seven-time Emmy Award-winning writer for his work on “Sesame Street”), is a play from his “Gunplays” series that seeks to put the issue of gun violence in perspective and explore the causes behind it.

The play focuses on the Rev. Miller (Richard Pryor Jr.), a Staten Island minister who used to be an incendiary activist. As the show opens, he is preparing a welcome home party for Sonny T, a young man who he saved from a life of violence on the streets by directing him toward the Army. While Miller and Sonny T’s family prepare for his return, Sonny T’s brother, Rodney (Kadeem Ali Harris), gets involved in the violent conflict brewing between the Blacks and Mexicans in the area. Rodney, while under the influence of an angry young man named Big Boy (Brandon Mellette), becomes involved in a conflict that ultimately leads to jarring consequences.

The staging at the Theater for the New City is simple, and it works for the material. Red, white and blue streamers fall from the ceiling; the walls are adorned with pictures of great Black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis; and a blown-up picture of a young, Black soldier hangs overhead. The red, white and blue-decorated tables in the stage area are surrounded by seats for audience members who want to sit closer to the action.

With this generation of cynicism and President Barack Obama’s promise of “Yes, We Can” still ringing in our years, it seems that the “lost revolutionary” has been appearing as an archetype in many theatrical works and films lately. The protagonist of this work falls into that category. Miller, still hanging onto the memories of the revolution that he fought so hard for, is faced with the reality of the self-destructive violence that runs rampant among the youth. No longer the fighter he used to be, Miller must also face the truth of his irrelevance to this new generation. Knowing that, he puts his faith in Sonny T, a boy he saved from the streets, to take over for him and help lead the youth in a better direction.

Violence is bad. Education is key. You must hold yourself accountable for your actions. Prejudice is deadly. There’s nothing new in “Welcome Home Sonny T”; rather, it is so weighed down with obvious messages that it plays out like a PBS special for teens. As a result, characters become nothing more than vehicles through which these lessons can be illustrated. Sonny T’s sister, Lashon (Brittney Benson), who studies hard in school and is aiming for college, serves as a moral compass, a representation of what Black youth should be working toward. Rodney, who is lost and impressionable and lacking in perspective, is pulled into the violence. The antagonistic Big Boy serves as a simple villain, an angry Black boy with little sense of self-worth—the quintessence of the kind of mindset that causes such violence. Finally, there’s Sonny T himself, who serves as a symbol of the hope that these violent behaviors can cease.

The acting also tends to falter at times, with Pryor in particular giving a stiff, rehearsed performance. Pryor, with his rambling, flat cadence, seems to have failed to pick up the ease and charisma his father was known for.

While the show may lack in complexity, it still ably tackles an important problem that continues to affect the Black community, and thus, it may be able to appeal to a younger audience as a tale of warning.

“Welcome Home Sonny T” is now playing at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave.) through Dec. 22. For more information or tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit www.welcomehomesonnyt.com.