Young poets adapt ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to tell story of Richmond gang violence

Donte Clark reads from the script

Donte Clark, 22, studies his lines at a recent rehearsal for the Richmond Artists With Talent production, "Te's Harmony." Clark wrote the script based on William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," inserting modern language and a Richmond spin. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

The story of Romeo and Juliet: It’s an archetype that’s as old as the ancient Romans and the tale of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” whose defiance of a bitter family feud for love cost them their lives. In the 1500s, William Shakespeare borrowed from the myth, turning the story into his classic play that’s been retold and reimagined across settings and media, from Broadway’s “West Side Story” to Hollywood blockbuster “Romeo Must Die.”

In Richmond this fall, a group of poets are putting their own spin on the tragedy.

Richmond Artists With Talent, part of Richmond’s Making Waves Education Program, call their adaptation “Te’s Harmony” – a new take on the text that mixes modern language, Shakespearean verse and spoken-word poetry, said Molly Raynor, RAW Talent founder and coordinator.

Here, the star-crossed lovers – Te (Romeo) and Harmony (Juliet) – find themselves not in the midst of a Montague-Capulet-esque feud, but in the violent North versus Central Richmond gang rivalry. “Te’s Harmony,” directed by Rooben Morgan, is RAW Talent’s first attempt at a full-fledged play, but students in the poetry group are already calling it a masterpiece.

Donte Clark, 22, a graduate of Making Waves, wrote “Te’s Harmony” by studying Shakespeare’s play and modernizing the dialogue. He also reworked it to tell the backstory of the feud; in this story, it’s Harmony’s family, the Santiagos of Central Richmond, versus the Te’s family, the Godfreys of North Richmond.

Clark plays Te alongside RAW Talent student D’Neise Robinson as Harmony – and perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by cosmic destiny, Clark is from North Richmond and Robinson lives in Central.

In place of Shakespearean monologues, the RAW Talent students each wrote their own spoken word poems. In composing their pieces, the young artists had the freedom to reflect on their personal experiences living in Richmond. Robinson uses her monologue to allow her character to intellectualize falling in love with Te, despite a painful past with “Narfers,” or people from North Richmond:

Guilt paints sorrowful lullabies in my mind
Piercing the drum of my ear with stain steeled regret,
I want to hate him so bad
Just like I hated the Narfer that killed my cousin
Just like I hated that Narfer I sliced with a razor
From her earlobe to her mouth because she thought she could set my patna up
Just like I hated those Narfers that jumped my best friend in front of me
Then tried to make me put a bullet in his head
Because of my loyalty I got two in my chest

D'neise Robinson reads her poem.

D’Neise Robinson, 17, left, rehearses her monologue in “Te’s Harmony” as RAW Talent coordinator Molly Raynor, right, listens on. She wrote her spoken word poem to give her character, Harmony (Juliet) a history fitting with growing up in Richmond. (Photo by: Sean Greene)

“I wanted my character to have a past,” Robinson said. “Being raised where I was … it comes up all the time being around drugs and violence. I couldn’t have her being a Goody Two-Shoes. She needed an edge, a past.”

Raynor and director Morgan are still unsure whether to use Robinson’s monologue as written – is it better to stick with the source material or build this backstory behind the Harmony character?

“Does this raise the stakes more?” Raynor said. “It could get deep very quickly.”

The closeness to which the new story mimics the reality of youth living in Richmond has caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Jason Zeldes, Raynor’s cousin.

“The whole thing sounded so cinematic,” said Zeldes, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “I kind of dropped everything else I was doing and starting doing some exploratory shoots. It turned out to be just as good as it sounded.”

Romeo is Bleeding,” the film’s working title, will focus on Clark’s journey through the making of the play and confronting the idea of a divided city, where a person from North Richmond might be reluctant to venture into the central area and vice versa.

“When you start talking to students at RAW Talent, a lot of them are affected by this turf war,” Zeldes said. “(The play) allows them to examine why there’s a turf war … and process the emotion surrounding it.”

Molly Raynor

Molly Raynor, RAW Talent founder and coordinator, coaches the young actors on their dialogue at a recent rehearsal for “Te’s Harmony.” (Photo by: Sean Greene)

The film’s trailer deals with heavy themes, zooming in on Clark as he takes a stand against a long-standing conflict in the city. While the drama in trailer is amped up to generate buzz, filming the documentary has, in a way, forced RAW Talent to perform an ethical balancing act.

The interviewees have to think carefully about what they say when speaking out about real life violence, Raynor said, making sure their words won’t be taken out of context.

“There are a lot of people that are really worried about Donte talking about turf violence and being in Richmond every day,” Raynor said after rehearsal on a recent night.

Clark chimed in.

“It’s making sure that what I say is clear,” he said. “But I don’t really look at it as a threat.”

Making Waves is a rare space in Richmond where people from all over the city can feel comfortable, Raynor said, but outside the building, some students are limited to where they can travel in Richmond. Zeldes has seen the same challenge in filming.

“We can only go into North Richmond with a couple characters of ours and the others can’t go,” he said. “It lets you know in a hurry that these dangers are out there.”

Last week, Zeldes launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to fund the filmmaking effort. So far, more than 200 backers have pledged more than $14,000. But the play, which Raynor estimates will cost up to $2,500 to stage, still needs to find funding. RAW Talent needs money to build sets and make costumes, and book a large enough theater to house 600 people for the one-night only play in February.

Jason Zeldes

Jason Zeldes

Zeldes, who will make his directorial debut with the film, said he’s attracted by the overwhelming sense of joy in the building at Making Waves.

“These kids love to be there and they love what they’re doing. That’s going to be the tone of the film, that love of craft,” Zeldes said. “It takes you back and it reminds you of how cool everything can be when you love what you’re doing.

“You go up there and you’re putting a lot of your own money on the line. You’re putting your name on the line,” he continued. “But you see these kids doing this amazing project and doing it really well. It puts everything in perspective for me. If they can do all this, it inspires me to do a really good job with the film because (it) will be a memento for everything they’re doing. It keeps me inspired on a daily basis.”

To support RAW Talent’s production, email RAW Talent coordinator Molly Raynor at mraynor@making-waves.org. Click here to view the Kickstarter page for “Romeo is Bleeding.”

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