By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The Ballad of Trayvon Martin is a world premiere celebrating New Freedom Theatre’s soon-to-be 50th anniversary in the beautiful Edwin Forrest mansion on north Broad Street. This docu-drama, by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (who also directs and choreographs) and Thomas J. Soto, is about the 2012 murder of an African American teenager, Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman who shot and killed Martin was later acquitted in Florida. The Black Lives Matter movement sprang from these dire events.
In a bizarre coincidence on Thursday, just hours before the opening night of The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman tried to sell the gun he used to kill Martin and, in a moment of surprising decency, he was thrown off two auction websites. As the show tells us, Zimmerman became “the most hated free man in America.”
The show presents, in a series of twenty-four scenes, the seventeen-year-old’s aspirations for his life and his parents’ love for him and his for them. It inserts the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old who was lynched 1955 in Mississippi, and then adds a litany of the names of black children who have been killed, month by month, year by year. It is a shockingly long list.
There is singing (Donna Cherry’s contralto is thrilling) and terrific hiphop dancing—the agile Julian Darden and Stanley Morrison silently accompany Trayvon (Amir Randall in a polished performance). We hear his father’s rage (Shabazz Green) and his mother’s grief (Angel Brice). Zimmerman (Christopher David Roche) becomes uglier and uglier as he becomes intoxicated with his celebrity, egged on by his brother (Michael Fegley).
Amid much repetition and overwrought sentimentality, there are some outstanding scenes; in Act I’s electric “Flash” shows us Trayvon and the two dancers become the superhero, The Flash, which painfully segues into Trayvon’s desperate attempt to run away from Zimmerman. Counterbalancing this youthful vigor are the scenes where we see Zimmerman writing in his diary, growing crazier and crazier, convinced eventually he is the “savior of the world.”
Wisely the playwrights have built in some comic relief; the cast impersonates famous tweeters as their comments are projected onto two screens: Spike Lee, Kim Kardashian and Shaquille O’Neal are the funniest.
New Freedom Theatre has always been committed to the African American community and to using theater as an instrument to further social justice; The Ballad of Trayvon Martin fits this mission.
New Freedom Theatre, 1346 N Broad St. Through May 22. Tickets $20-35. Information: 267-209-6050 or freedomtheatre.org