July 18, 2008

Community Theater Troupe Confronts Taboo Subject of AIDS, Homosexuality

By Cecily Burt, The Oakland Tribune, Calif.

Jul. 18--When the stage lights go down tonight in West Oakland, the Lower Bottom neighborhood comes alive.

This weekend is the last chance to see the Lower Bottom Playaz, a West Oakland-based amateur theater troupe, perform an original work, "Mama at Twilight: Death by Love," at the Sister Thea Bowman Theater on Peralta Street.

Playwright and Playaz founder and director Ayodele "WordSlanger" Nzinga said she used the story of secrets and challenges tearing at one family to tackle the closeted and taboo subjects of AIDS and homosexuality among African-Americans. The subjects are so difficult and explosive that it can be a challenge finding a young male actor to take on such roles, she said.

"What I'm really talking about is relationships, and the lens that I'm using is AIDS," Nzinga said.

She started the community theater troupe at the Prescott Joseph Center for Community Enhancement eight years ago, and her plays have consistently focused on difficult and relevant topics to African Americans, such as gun violence, male and female gender roles, and community health. She also introduced Shakespeare in the Yard as a way to bring together young residents of violence-ravaged West Oakland neighborhoods and provide them an artistic outlet to broaden their horizons, learn a craft and escape the streets -- if only for a few hours.

Through excerpts of Shakespeare's works, the young performers discovered that some issues are universal, such as

tragedies caused by two rival, warring families, or misguided jealousy.

The language was archaic, but they could relate. Much of the violence in their neighborhoods is fueled by feuds over drugs, turf and perceived disrespect.

Some of those youths became core members of Lower Bottom Playaz, and others help with lighting, music, props and other stage tasks.

"Over 60 percent of the actors of color in the Laney College theater program have acted in the Yard," Nzinga said. "We're getting a nice little reputation as a finishing school."

IF YOU GO: Sister Thea Bowman Theater is located at 920 Peralta St. in Oakland. Showtimes are 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $20 reserved table seating; $15 general admission; $10 students, seniors Theater is outdoors; dress is casual. Bring a jacket and bug repellent. Call 510-208-1912 for phone reservations or 510-835-8683 for ticket information.


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