First Generation performance 'just the beginning'

Members of First Generation have been preparing for a year for the upcoming performances of their original work, titled "through the eye of bakok," taking place in Springfield next month.
Reminder Publications submitted photo
By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

SPRINGFIELD - MC Julius Ford put it bluntly at the First Generation sneak preview event earlier this year - "Springfield is a sleeping elephant off Route 91. There are so many jewels here. We need to wake the people up to see them."

First Generation will serve as a ringing alarm clock Aug. 7 through 9.

Julie Lichtenberg believes there are many ways to be considered "first generation" - you could be the first in your family to graduate high school or attend college; the first to be openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered; or the first to be born in this country.

She also believes that first generation stories need to be told.

That's why Lichtenberg, along with Nancy Tolson (artistic co-director), DW Walker (artist-in-residence), Carla Wojczuk (group coordinator) and James Arana and Frances Borden Hubbard (group facilitators) have come together to create "First Generation: A Performing Arts Project."

"It's about discovering [your] voice," Lichtenberg told Reminder Publications. "After their performance, the youth will create a dialogue with [the] audience. The performance is just the beginning."

"It's food for thought," Tolson added. "It's a wonderful way to plant seeds in minds."

First Generation is an intensive, arts-based and youth leadership-development program, providing a platform for young people to have a public voice in their communities and beyond, through creative expression and thoughtful exploration of what it means to be first generation, according to project literature.

Lichtenberg said work on the project began in 2007, with close to a year passing as the groundwork was laid. This project was inspired by another she had worked on, the Performance Project at the Hampshire Jail and House of Corrections in Northampton.

"In the years of participants and cast members of the Performance Project, there were several people who were first generation," Lichtenberg said. "They spoke on how core that experience was, how it presented many challenges to their growing up.

"The first thing I began to think about is traditionally, the Performance Project is not just about creating theater but building community," Lichtenberg continued. "As we began to develop the project, we really opened up the idea of 'first generation' and thought of how perfect it would be for young people. They work very hard to declare [themselves] as independent, and are shifting from family cultures - we wanted to find a way to express that and strengthen their ties with their cultures."

And so, in the autumn of 2008, First Generation began. Lichtenberg asked for "a huge commitment" from the youth involved, ages 15 to 22 - a year-long commitment, with the group meeting two to three times a week and for weekend retreats, when the youth would work on writing, drawing and even martial arts.

The project received a grant from the Springfield Cultural Council to support visiting artists, through the Youth Reach of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

On May 5, supporters of the project and those involved in it were offered a sneak preview performance in Springfield.

"First Generation is a new family," project participant Emily Laufer stated. "It's such a wonderful experience to grow, to blossom, to become a part of our community in ways you can't imagine."

Laufer, of Northampton, is the first generation to not know her biological parents or her "actual identity."

The youth involved - with cultures spanning the Dominican Republic, Sudan, Cambodia and beyond - have been working to create a single performance piece that will include all their languages, spoken word and dance.

"We bonded quickly," Laufer said. "We've been doing amazing work from the beginning."

Shareef Ibrahim of Springfield noted there was a quick connection between him and the rest of the group. He is the first generation of his family to do any sort of theater work.

The first phase of the project was the creative work; the second phase will include working with both younger and older community members.

"The youth really do want to reach out and make a difference," Laufer said.

"This is an opportunity for them to build relationships and send them out into the world," Walker said. "These young people have grown so much ... It's magnificent to see them grow."

First Generation was offered performance space at the Rebecca M. Johnson Visual and Performing Arts School, 55 Catharine St., and Lichtenberg said the performances are intended to inspire people and so they can see what young artists have spent a year creating.

The project's show, titled "through the eye of bakok," will take place Aug. 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. and Aug. 9 at 2 p.m. at Rebecca Johnson School. The play is a mix of shifting realities and time travel as nine characters, each on their own journey, are stuck in an airport. "Bakok" is the Dinka word for someone who must leave their home and travel to another place.

The performance is appropriate for those ages 12 and older. Tickets are $10 each and are available at the door. Free refreshments will be served after the performances.

"The group ... will help us understand more [of] what's going on in the world at a time [when] we really need to have voices of the young," Tolson said. "This is a great way for people to see and understand."

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