“The play was inspired by the shooting of a young man named Freddy Villaneuva,” Vancouver-based playwright Omari Newton tells me. “A young man that was apparently unarmed, had no previous criminal record. He got into some kind of altercation with the police, and he ended up getting shot. He died.”
His play, Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy Of, is coming to the Yukon Arts Centre. It explores the aftermath of a violent police shooting through the experiences of a hip hop group, whose DJ is killed in the opening scenes. It’s not a re-telling of the Villaneuva story, but deeply inspired by its effects on Newton, who shared a hometown with the deceased youth.
“I wanted to explore why these situations continue to happen,” Newton says. “I thought writing a play about it would be a way to vent those frustrations.”
Newton began writing the play in 2008, shortly after Villaneuva’s death. He chuckles sadly when he tells me his biggest concern was whether the play would still be relevant by the time it made it to the stage. With countless similar stories occurring since, Newton says, “every year it seems to be more and more relevant.”
Though this is his first play, Newton has been writing and performing spoken word poetry since college. For him, art and activism have always been intertwined.
“I literally wrote a protest rap about recycling when I was in second grade,” he tells me.
“It helps alleviate a lot of the frustration,” he says, telling me that writing this play helped him “take a more balanced and nuanced view.”
“When I was younger, I would have just been angry, I would have thought [the shooting] was just because of racism,” Newton tells me. “But in doing research for the play I met a lot of police officers. At the time one of my best friends had recently become a police officer. My father-in-law was a chief of police in Ontario.”
What it’s really about, Newton realized, is “lack of bonds and bridges between communities. It’s not that there are people who are racist who are trying to hunt a person of colour.”
The play also has another major focus.
“Generally plays are written for an older audience and not necessarily a diverse audience,” Newton says. “I wanted to tell an honest story that would appear attractive to a younger demographic and a diverse demographic.”
Which is partially where the hip hop theme enters.
“The demonization of hip hop culture and urban culture has always rubbed me the wrong way,” says Newton. “I feel really indebted to hip hop culture for giving me an education, keeping me entertained. It frustrates me that very often in the mainstream media, hip hop is demonized by people who don’t understand the culture.”
“I view hip hop music, and even some of the more violent aspects, the way I view a great movie,” Newton says. “We don’t hold someone like Martin Scorsese accountable for promoting gangster culture. Its just storytelling.”
If by now you’re wondering whether the play will feature hip hop performances, the answer is a definite yes. Although Newton would be “happy to have a tenth of the success of The Sound of Music,” he’s clear that his play isn’t a musical.
Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy Of plays at the Yukon Arts Centre March 18th and 19th at 8:00 pm. Tickets are available online, at the box office, and Arts Underground.