In 2015, the residents of Overtown mourned 10-year-old Marlon Eason, who was killed by a stray bullet while playing basketball outside his home. The predominantly black community has undergone harrowing socioeconomic struggles, including poverty, drugs, violence, and neglect and stigma from outsiders. At the same time, many residents of Overtown work tirelessly to invest in the growth and revitalization of their community. And with the upcoming Miami installment of Dan Froot’s radio play, Pang!, one of Overtown’s community leaders will have a chance to share the story of her family and those of her neighbors.
“Miami was built on the backs of people of color originally. Overtown used to be known as ‘Colored Town’ [during the Jim Crow era], where freed slaves settled in order to work on the railroad as it extended down into South Florida," says Froot, the Los Angeles-based producer and director of Pang! "It became a cultural center like Harlem in the early 20th Century, and artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole would play in Miami Beach, but they couldn’t sleep there, so they would go to Overtown.
“Since then, the area has became terribly underserved," he adds. "The expressway has bisected the neighborhood. It’s squeezed by the soccer stadium on one side and on the other side by downtown development. It’s a pressure cooker. There is lots of pride in the neighborhood and lots of effort at redevelopment, but there is a lot of terrible gun violence and drugs. Families like Tranée’s family are forces for change in that neighborhood.”
Overtown resident Tranée and her young son Tremaine, whom Froot asked to be identified by only their first names for privacy, are the real-life inspirations for the Miami performance of Pang! The show, which will be performed at Miami Light Project’s Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse, consists of three installments of live radio plays that focus on the story of a local family struggling with poverty from three cities: Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, and Miami. Pang! premiered in Cedar Rapids and Los Angeles this past fall.
Froot and his production team worked closely with Tranée and Tremaine to create the Miami episode, which centers on the experience of 7-year-old Terrence, who lives in Overtown with his family. Terrence’s young friend is tragically killed in a shooting, and Terrence himself has a near-death experience. His imagination runs free as he fantasizes about a future full of strength and hope.
The fictional Terrence's story closely follows that of Tranée and Tremaine. “In the play, Terrence has a friend who is the victim of gun violence. This is very close to the truth. If you’ve lived in Miami, you know the Marlon Eason story: the 10-year-old boy who was gunned down when playing basketball in front of his house. The boy lived down the street from Tranée’s sister and not far from where they live now... It affected the family very, very powerfully. It was one of the central stories of their oral history in that it brought certain people together and divided others. It really fractured their world.”
As part of the research and development process for Pang!, Froot partnered with faith-based Miami social service organization Touching Miami With Love to find a family that was interested in telling its story. Touching Miami With Love identified Tranée, who volunteers as a teacher for the organization’s after-school program, and her son Tremaine, who attends the program. Over eight months, an oral historian recorded and transcribed verbatim 12 one-hour interviews with the family, resulting in about 250 pages of text.
Froot and Tranée then embarked on a consent-driven creative process to write a story true to the spirit of the family’s experience in Overtown. The issue of creative liberty in creating fictional radio plays from true experiences was a persistent consideration for Froot, which he resolved by fully involving the families from the beginning of the research process to the final performance.
“In order to take a family’s life and condense it into a 30-minute episode, there is a certain level of violence that occurs," Froot explains. "You draw a single thread and leave other things behind. We were very mindful of that, and we tried to mitigate it as much as possible... We had to condense and make up certain characters and create certain scenarios, so [we made sure that that] the families were giving their consent all along.”
Tranée and Tremaine will be present at the premieres this Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27. Pang! has a unique built-in discussion feature in the performance called “The Kitchen Table,” in which a literal kitchen table that seats six to eight people is set up between the audience and the stage. Audience members are invited to join the families and performers and engage in discussion. Participants can return to their seats at any time, and new interlocutors can join. This Saturday, Tranée will co-facilitate the discussion with Kalyn James, the director of the Overtown Performing Arts Center. In addition, the two other families from the Pang! episodes in Los Angeles and Cedar Rapids will join the kitchen table via Skype.
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“One of the immediate things [I’d like to achieve with Pang!] is to have cross-class dialogue inside the theater,” Froot says. “The current political climate is divisive, and the whole point of the kitchen table is to bring people from different backgrounds together. When you have talking heads or big groups of people who have their own polemics and are shouting at each other across demonstration lines, [it’s difficult to communicate]. But when you have a conversation respectfully across a kitchen table, there is opportunity for change.”
After receiving positive reviews from past performances of the radio play in Los Angeles and Cedar Rapids, Froot hopes to expand the project by recording the performances into podcasts and continuing to travel around the country to add more geographic and regional diversity to stories about families living with socioeconomic challenges.
“The long-term goal is to reduce the stigma associated with poverty and food insecurity and being poor both in terms of the position of people who find themselves in these circumstances and people not in those circumstances who make certain stereotypical decisions about who folks are,” Froot says. “Something like this — a small performance at a little performance space — the ripples will go outward and we will have an impact. People in the audiences will feel empowered. That’s how we hope to do it, person by person.”
Pang! 8 p.m. Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27, at Miami Light Project’s Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami; 305-576-4350; miamilightproject.com. Tickets cost $15 to $25 via eventbrite.com.