If you think school plays are amateurish stabs at dated Broadway musicals, head over to Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School for an exploration of a topic that has the entire city puzzled: flash mobs. There, in the school’s cafeteria (which has been converted into a theater complete with video projections), you’ll find PHLash: A Mob Story, an original docu-drama making its premiere this week.
To “give voice” to his students’ experiences living in the city, drama instructor Gregory DeCandia proposed they create an original work. “I knew I wanted to explore the teen flash mobs due to the fact that I would be teaching the actual demographic that had participated in these events,” DeCandia says.
As part of their research, the students conducted and videotaped 43 interviews, of which 19 were selected for the play. They then studied the videotaped interviews to inform their performances by attempting to master the mannerisms, speech patterns, gestures, body language and cadence specific to each character. Scott Scheldon, an English teacher at Boys’ Latin, used verbatim excerpts from the interviews to create the play’s script.
Like most (not all) docu-dramas, PHLash doesn’t advocate a particular point of view. Instead, the play presents a wide variety of perspectives on flash mobs and a host of other topics that include social media, economic inequality, the lack of jobs and activities for urban teens, and race. Giving voice to the perspectives is an eclectic group of characters that include members of Occupy Philadelphia; students at Boys’ Latin; a flash mob participant; Nicholas Pascale, a police officer assigned to the PPD’s South Street mini-station (and also the site of a flash mob); Chief Assistant District Attorney Angel Flores, who prosecuted some of those involved in the mob violence; the Rev. Carl Fichett, vice president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP; and Wali “Diop” Rahman, who ran against Mayor Nutter as an independent. The most affecting voices in PHLash , however, belong to the victims of the violence, particularly a young woman who watches her friends being beaten by a mob and a Boys’ Latin student who was assaulted by a group on the street.
The show’s pacing is as varied as the opinions expressed. At the play’s outset, a quiet mother-son moment is disrupted by a blast of noise and physical chaos that is jarring in its intensity, enhanced by projections and the sounds of shouting and whistles blowing. Later in the play, the mugging of a student is frighteningly re-enacted. Not all the action in PHLash , however, is threatening. There is a joyous re-creation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and a performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus” as sung by some 650 participants at Macy’s. These latter scenes serve to portray flash mobs as they were originally: a means of artistic expression.
Throughout the play, various characters propose reasons behind flash mob violence as well as potential solutions. However, while some blame teenage boredom, others (Rev. Fitchett) cite the cause as “an experiment in social media gone awry.” Either way, the play is neither preachy nor didactic.
DeCandia says the goal of PHLash wasn’t to provide answers to the cause of flash mobs or propose solutions to the violence, but rather to get people talking about the topic. “We didn’t want to say this is what happened and this is how to fix it,” he says. “ PHLash doesn’t have an antagonist; it expresses more of the climate of the community that experienced these events.”
7pm. Feb. 9-11. $5-$12. Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, 5501 Cedar Ave. boyslatin.org