On a recent evening, the cast of (Be)longing — an oratorio about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that draws from hip hop and opera and runs at Long Wharf Theatre as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas this Saturday and Sunday — was assembled in a rehearsal space in Hendrie Hall on Elm Street. Over a series of long pitches held by a group of singers, Hanifa Washington, assuming the role of mediator, maybe therapist, was asking the people in the room what freaks them out.
“Confrontation!” said one cast member. “Confrontation freaks me out,” the chorus sang in unison, in four ascending notes.
“Sharks!” someone else offered. “Sharks freak me out,” the chorus sang back.
“White supremacy!” said a third. “White supremacy freaks me out,” sang the chorus.
Then they pointed at each other. “You freak me out,” they sang. The music was coming together.
Jafferis spoke up. “Convince me that it freaks you out,” he said. “Because right now you all are acting mad calm.”
From Hillhouse to Virginia Tech and Back
Aaron Jafferis, now 41 years old, was born in City Point in New Haven and grew up in Westville. He went to Edgewood, then to Sheridan, then to Hillhouse and ECA.
“Growing up in New Haven, late ‘80s, early ‘90s, hip hop was what I listened to,” he said. So when he went to UC Berkeley for college and started taking writing classes, “the poetry that I wrote had hip hop all up in it.” But thanks to his time at ECA, “it also had some drama in it.” A stint at NYU followed. That was where Jafferis met Au Yong. The two collaborated on a one-man show, Stuck Elevator, based on the true story of an immigrant who spent 81 hours trapped in a Bronx elevator. That show was staged at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in 2013, had another full production in San Francisco, and went on to acclaim.
While the pair was working on Stuck Elevator, Virginia Tech senior Seung-Hui Cho, armed with two handguns, killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before shooting himself.
“The shooter was a Korean American,” Au Yong said. In New York City in 2007, he watched as the media sensationalized the attacks and moved on. “I wanted to figure out what the story was,” he said, “which is the seed of social justice.”
As Au Yong and Jafferis learned more about Cho, they began to ask difficult questions. Why had Cho decided to turn from creative writer (in which he majored) to mass murderer? Au Yong began from a belief that people are innately good. “What’s the turning point to fear or anger?” he said. Was Cho in a sense a victim as well? Was the number of victims killed 32 or 33?
The pair dove deeper. They visited Blacksburg, Va. and attended remembrance events. They spoke with a survivor and the family of a victim. They met with police and community support groups, students and faculty. They expanded their research to other cities affected by gun violence, including Miami and New Haven.
The result was to make (Be)longing a “multi-layered work,” said Au Yong. “There can be multiple interpretations.” The multiplicity of voices also meant that the piece moved away from the one-man concept of Stuck Elevator. It became, of necessity, a choral work.
The News Is The Noose
In Hendrie Hall, the cast of singers, rappers, and beatboxers was still rehearsing. They were honing on the music, making it tighter. Music Director Stephanie Tubiolo, arms out to conduct, was making sure the singers’ consonants landed on downbeats together. Director Charlotte Braithwaite watched over the proceedings with an attentive eye.
The idea of the piece the singers were rehearsing, Au Yong explained, was that the list of things that freak the singers out was generated by the audience first, who would be asked to write down things that freak them out on pieces of paper at the start of the show. That would get the ball rolling when it came time for this part of the oratorio. In time, however, Washington’s character would ask everyone in the room — cast members and audience members alike — to say aloud what freaked them out.
“When Hanifa is asking them to participate,” Braithwaite said, “there needs to be a little space for people to actually put their hands up” and be called upon.
“What if the thing the person says doesn’t freak us out?” a cast member asked.
“I think you should react the way your character reacts,” Braithwaite said. “Maybe it’s a big deal for you, maybe it’s not a big deal for you.”
Tubiolo nodded. “Can we just go from the top again?” She raised her arms. The piece began again. This time the whole thing ran even smoother, from the orchestrated choral sections to the more improvised sections that would rely on audience feedback and participation, to the section’s chilling middle section, which delved into the shock following the shooting, and its bitter end.
“The news is the noose,” the singers repeated. When they sang it, Braithwaite directed, “everybody do this.” She demonstrated, putting her own hand around her neck.
Growing up in New Haven, Jafferis explained, he used to go to Long Wharf and Yale Repertory productions with his parents or with school groups. “I saw nothing there that felt relevant to me or my classmates,” he said. So there is poetic justice in the way that the Arts and Ideas Festival has championed his and Au Yong’s work, with Stuck Elevator and now with (Be)longing. Jafferis seeks to create theater that draws from “the life experiences of people that I’m close to, and people that I’m far from, and seeing what the difference is between us,” he said. “I’m pushing toward the kind of theater that I need.”
(Be)longing runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas June 17 and 18 at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.