Eight students stand in a semicircle onstage, each portraying a character affected by gun violence.
Evelyn Ros, 24, approaches a microphone near the stage apron, her expression solemn, her figure framed by a dozen light bulbs suspended on strings, and the Cuban-born Miami Dade College student sings in Spanish. After finishing her two-minute solo “1,000 Reasons To Love,” a haunting melody Ros wrote about love overwhelming hatred, choreographer Ni’ja Whitson barks the next stage direction from the floor.
“Search for your reason to love!” Whitson shouts. “Find your reason in the air behind you. Grasp the air. Feel the light!”
Ros and company pace the stage in slow motion, arms outstretched, pretending to pluck something near the light bulbs. The actors are rehearsing a scene for “Trigger,” a sobering hip-hop musical tackling the scourge of gun violence and mass shootings, which will be staged Friday, April 21, at the Lehman Theater on the North Campus of Miami Dade College.
On its second stop after premiering in March in Blacksburg, Va., the play is the brainchild of poet Aaron Jafferis and composer Byron Au Yong, and is timed to the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 people and injured 17 on April 16, 2007. The piece, described by its creators as combining “Hamilton”-style rap verses with commentary on preventing gun-related deaths, strikes a chord with Jafferis.
“I think of our show as the opposite of a mass shooting,” Jafferis says during a recent rehearsal in the Lehman Theater. “In each city, we’re using our songs to foment change and encourage voices to rise up. The question is, ‘Why do young people shoot each other or get shot, and how do we get the shootings to stop?’ ”
Jafferis and Yong wrote 10 songs for “Trigger,” each spun from interviews with family members of Virginia Tech victims; a child psychologist; a Newtown, Conn., school administrator; and the former police chief of Blacksburg. But to adapt these stories for every city that “Trigger” visits, Jafferis says, he also tapped local participants to create choral music both personal and “heart-stirring.”
Ros wrote her song, “1,000 Reasons To Love,” based on her experience emigrating two years ago from Cuba, where privately owned guns are banned, to Hialeah. Gun violence is a sore spot for Ros: When she was 6, her mother’s cousin found a gun in Cuba, shot and murdered his girlfriend, and later killed himself.
“I didn’t understand why a cousin could do something like that to another person,” says Ros, who is studying pre-pharmacy at the college. “When you see what’s happening at Virginia Tech, and the Orlando nightclub [Pulse], people seem to have no fear of guns in America. I thought of all the reasons you have to hate, and I realized there are so many more reasons to love. If we can love, we can make a better world.”
In a small room backstage during rehearsal, 23-year-old student Nate Johnson, of Miami Beach, trades verses with student Steve Jean-Charles. “They got guns and they’re ready to shoot them, to shoot them,” Johnson sings , his falsetto in rhythm with Jean-Charles’ finger-snapping. “We beat our drums through the confusion, through the confusion.”
Johnson, a recent Florida Atlantic University graduate, portrays a Virginia Tech engineering student who witnesses his professor blockading the classroom door with his body to protect his students. The gunman shoots the professor, and Johnson’s character climbs out a window to escape.
“My character takes the teacher’s death in a very inspiring way. He switches majors from engineering to education and becomes a teacher,” Johnson says. “It’s a powerful, complex, beautiful play.”
“Trigger” clocks in at one hour, and will be followed by a town-hall-style segment inviting the audience to discuss belonging, forgiveness, justice and safety and becoming an advocate for ending gun violence. For Kathryn Garcia, the executive director of MDC Live Arts, which is programming the musical, the town hall is a perfect fit for Miami.
“Gun violence is rampant everywhere, really. People are being killed left and right,” says Kathryn Garcia, executive director of MDC Live Arts, which is programming the musical. “Students at campus here come from Opa-Locka, from Liberty City, and have had personal experiences with gun violence. This play is a channel for people to process those experiences.”
“Trigger” will be performed 8 p.m. Friday, April 21, at Miami-Dade College North Campus, 11380 NW 27th Ave., Building 5, in Miami. Admission is free. Call 305-237-3010 or go to MDCLiveArts.org.
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