With all the recent violence in the city of Richmond, Smith has work to do. Luckily, the former teacher had already chosen “Hey Little Walter” as the third of his four-production season. The play was written by a teenager, Carla Debbie Alleyne, and tells the story of a boy growing up in poverty. He sees selling drugs as a quick way to help his family, but doesn’t see the consequences.
The production is largely volunteer. Smith recruited local theater veteran Artisia Green to direct. In past productions he’s had students representing 12 different Richmond public schools. This play mixes five student actors with volunteer adult actors.
“This is our third play that’s specifically geared toward the youth, and I’ve been really surprised at our success,” he says. “We’ve had packed houses.”
Smith sends flyers to churches and youth centers in troubled areas in order to attract kids. He’s established relationships with 200 youth pastors, and he reaches out to groups all over town including the Church Hill Boys and Girls Club, the Imani Center in Blackwell and George Wythe High School on the South Side, where he used to teach. He also scouts in other high-crime areas such as Highland Park, Jackson Ward and Gilpin Court.
But what about the real problem kids, the ones that don’t go to church or go to an after-school program? Smith’s thought of that too. He’s already begun discussions with several communities about doing plays on street corners, or setting up outdoor stages. In the spring, he’s planning a performance for the backyard of the Boaz and Ruth center, a group and location, he says, that is particularly noticeable in Highland Park. He’s already gotten permission to borrow the city’s portable stage, the showmobile, in June and July so he can take productions on tour through different neighborhoods.
Smith says his mission is twofold: to establish a theatrical presence in the African-American community and to do plays that are relevant and inspirational to them. On a different level, he also hopes to provide a creative outlet for kids who may not have other ways to express themselves. His company of volunteers works hard to make it easy for interested students to take part. They even pick some up for rehearsal. Smith hopes one day they’ll have a van, or even work out a plan with the city to get bus tickets.
His hope for “Little Walter,” he says: “I want them to get the message that the play has to offer, theater has a way of showing you yourself on the stage so you can question the things that you’re going through. And second, students don’t know that they have the ability to perform on the stage, and I hope when they see their peers on the stage they’ll want to get involved like this in something positive.”
Since “Little Walter” shows at a particularly troubled time for the city, with 87 homicides and counting for the year, Smith has organized a youth summit to take place after the Saturday, Dec. 3, performance. With the help of community activists — Marlene Early from the Regional Drug-Free Alliance and Citizens Against Crime founder Alicia Rasin — he’ll open up a discussion about the play and what can be done about the violence in Richmond.
Rasin, who was named Richmond’s Ambassador of Compassion by Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, says she’ll share stories with the kids. “I’m out basically every day trying to instill in their minds that if you’re going to make bad choices bad things are going to happen,” she says. “I tell them there are only two places that I know that you can end up, and that’s the jail or the cemetery.”
Rasin says that it all comes down to decision-making, and she’s excited that Smith’s production speaks to that. “I am so proud of him — to know that there’s someone else out here doing good work for these kids. Derome is just an outstanding person and I just thank God for him.” S
Living Word Stage Company’s “Hey Little Walter” runs Thursdays to Sundays through Dec. 7 in the company’s theater at 103 E. Broad Street. Tickets cost $12. Call 644-4030. The Youth Summit will take place after the 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, performance.
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