When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, Amir Randall was only 12 years old and barely aware of the racial conflagration that quickly erupted. Four years later, as a 16-year-old actor tasked with portraying the slain Florida teenager, Randall has been stunned to discover the similarities between Martin and himself.
“It was kind of scary how relatable he was to me,” says Randall, who plays the title role in New Freedom Theatre’s “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin.”
“He played football, liked sports and lifting weights and talking to girls and I like the same things. He wanted to be a pilot; I wanted to be a pilot. It’s crazy that something like that could happen in the blink of an eye: you’re living 17 years having all these dreams and then your life’s taken in an instant.”
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For playwright/director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who is serving as New Freedom’s guest artistic director this season, Martin’s death instantly recalled another tragic killing of a black teenager. “I immediately thought about Emmett Till,” Maharaj says, recalling the 14-year-old lynched in 1955 Mississippi. “It really resonated within my artistic spirit and made me look at the similarities between these two young boys who were both murdered in the south.”
Over the ensuing years, tragically, a network of connections have branched off from that initial link, adding names like Michael Brown and Eric Garner and spawning the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, a raucous and unpredictable presidential race has only inflamed the country’s divisions, all of which was swirling around in Maharaj’s mind as he and co-author Thomas J. Soto developed this “poetic docudrama” incorporating music, hip-hop and modern dance.
“Like any ballad, we wanted each scene to be a different note but strung together they create a beautiful symphony of music and moments that tell the story of this young man,” Maharaj says. “In these strange political days, when we’re hearing so much about blaming others and division, a play like this is an opportunity for us to have a real conversation. We must acknowledge our shared painful past to have true reconciliation.”
Already, the banner advertising the play that hangs outside New Freedom’s North Philly theater has enticed local community members to come inside, ask questions and begin a conversation that Maharaj hopes to continue. “People are demanding to see theater that reflects the now and who we are as a people,” he says. “This play is a reminder that Trayvon and all the young men of color that passed on had lives and belonged to families and had dreams that were deferred, and we’re all part of that.”
For Randall, studying and portraying Trayvon Martin has been a life-changing experience that has made him conscious of his own mortality – a sobering realization for a high school sophomore. “I wear a hoodie a lot,” he says starkly. “Over the past year or two I’ve really been watching how I walk and talk. It’s really made me be careful of myself.”