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06/08/2017 12:01 AM

Taking Aim at Violence at International Festival

The award-winning team of Byron Au Yong, right, and Aaron Jafferis, left, have created a work that considers how violence affects us and how we can, despite that, find ways to connect and build safe and supportive communities. Photo courtesy of Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis

“We’re in the thick of things now,” says Aaron Jafferis on the phone during a break in rehearsals in Miami for yet another production of [Be]longing, the community-rooted music-theater piece that will be re-envisioned for New Haven during the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The show is being presented in association with Long Wharf Theatre, where it will be presented Saturday and Sunday, June 17 and 18.

The New Haven-based performance artist-poet-writer created the work, described as a “theatrical oratorio,” with composer Byron Au Yong, his collaborator for the intimate opera Stuck Elevator, which played at the festival several years ago.

But this time out the two are not bringing a ready-made work to town, but rather are working with the local community for the “performance event,” which will feature locally cast singers, beat-boxers, hip-hop artists, and choruses performing original material and “reflecting our society’s collective emergence from large-scale tragedies.”

The multi-act piece are “reflections surrounding the Virginia Tech and Newtown killings,” but told from a local perspective and featuring about 35 to 40 performers, half adult, half young people.

“Many of the songs and raps are based on interviews with local people who have been affected by gun violence, including survivors and families of victims,” says Jafferis, whose previous works includes Howe to Break, Kingdom, and No Lie; he was also part of the Cornerstone Theater’s production of the community-centric work, The Good Person of New Haven at Long Wharf theater in 2001.

The idea of the piece began following the shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech when Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at the school, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before killing himself.

Besides Miami, Jafferis has led a production on the campus of Virginia Tech which took place earlier this year.

There was some trepidation by some at the college, says Jafferis, who were concerned that these “outsiders” weren’t going to be telling the story as honestly as necessary. Also, the college itself did not want to be principally identified for the shooting there.

“There’s an unofficial desire not to talk about it much, at least not publicly,” says Jafferis. “But the overwhelming response was one of gratitude for having the opportunity to talk about this.”

Because of the nature of the piece, Jafferis didn’t respond to the proposal when Yong at first suggested it a year or so after the shooting.

“I didn’t want to spend the time in something so dark and be inside a shooter’s head, for example,” Jafferis says, though after the Newtown tragedy in 2012, he reconsidered and the piece took on a more expansive perspective.

“We knew it couldn’t be a show about the shooter but rather about the community,” he says. “We wanted [Be]longing to look at what connects, as well as what disconnects. We wanted to create a show that bridges that gap and be a galvanizing force to those who have lost so much due to gun violence in New Haven and so many other places...The shooters, the victims, these are people I knew growing up here.

“The show loosely follows two young people who are growing up [in a neighborhood] and who are seeking community at the same time they’re exposed to triggers of violence. Their families have divergent views to exposing their kids to guns and their community is pulling them in different directions. But this show is more about life than death.

“I think it can sound so heavy and people might think, ‘Why would I subject myself to this [dark subject]. Because of that Byron and I have focused much of our energy in finding the humor and ridiculousness and wild energy and choral beauty of the piece.

“You’re going to hear some of the most amazing singers and beat boxers and rappers and choral artists around.”

Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.