Galvanizing event delivers potent messages on stage in "The Ballad of Trayvon Martin"

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PHILADELPHIA >> Trayvon Martin has often been in the thoughts of playwright and activist Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj in the four years since the 17-year-old unarmed black boy was shot and killed after a confrontation with neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.

He has wondered about Martin's dreams, his life and the moments before he died.

Maharaj has channeled those thoughts into a two-hour play at Philadelphia's New Freedom Theater, where it opened Thursday and is scheduled to run through Sunday. "The Ballad of Trayvon Martin," co-written with Thomas Soto, explores the idea of the dangerous consequences for black boys and men of being perceived as a threat through the lens of Martin, whose death in Sanford, Florida, on Feb. 26, 2012, was a galvanizing event for many black Americans and seen by some as the nascent origins of the Black Lives Matter movement underway across the country.

Maharaj wrote the play six months after Zimmerman was acquitted of Martin's death in 2013.

"My grandmother would say, 'There are things that are put on you and they never go away,'" Maharaj said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That was something that was put on me. It angered me so deeply, and I just didn't know what to do. We're left with the question of, How do we move ahead and make sure Trayvon's death is not in vain? The theater is a great place where we can do that. For me, it's the great equalizer."

The star's message to the audience: Feel me. See me. Don't shoot me.

Martin is played by 16-year-old Amir Randall, who was 12 when Martin was killed.

"I remember (Martin's death) very vividly, but I wasn't socially aware then, so it didn't affect me the way that it should have," Randall said. "I didn't understand that he had dreams. I researched other black children who met their demise. ... This has happened for so long. I have all these names and lost souls to portray on stage and make people understand. Kids my age are losing their lives."

As he prepared for his role and learned more about Martin, Randall found the two shared a dream of becoming a pilot, were both interested in girls and liked football. Randall said the experience of playing Martin has made him wonder whether he will live to reach his goals as he approaches his own 17th birthday this year.

"Most of my friends are thinking about college and jobs," said Randall, a high school sophomore. "I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do tomorrow? Can I wear my suit in this neighborhood?' You can have all these dreams, and in a second, they disappear. I'm trying to put all of my strength into this, just in case something does happen to me."

Maharaj envisions Martin's death as a bridge between Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement. Emmett Till, whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi spurred black people into action more than 60 years ago, is a spirit guide in the play, which also recalls the deaths of other black men. But Maharaj, whose previous work has reached back to civil rights era figures from the Little Rock Nine to Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, also intentionally fuses the modern element of the Internet into the play — a key element of the power of Martin's story, one of the first to gain traction on social media.

In one scene, Martin asks Till, "Will there be others?" Till responds, "Listen," as the cast speaks the names of those who have died before and after him.

"The struggle continues," Maharaj says. "Trayvon Martin has been a rallying call that we have a lot of work to do in this country. That generation did not let go of Emmett Till. That's what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing, stirring something that has been there."


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