Inside a small City College classroom in San Francisco’s Mission District a group of young people of color chant:
“You can’t arrest my life;
I’ve got to tell the truth.
You can’t arrest my life;
Low cries of “Don’t shoot,” from a young woman in braids bookend every line while two others sing “Keep hope alive,” soothingly over the rhythm. The ten 17 to 24 year olds can’t help but smile as they layer their voices over one another but their eyes carry a determination that fits the subject matter perfectly.
The group, gathered on a Thursday night for rehearsal, is the cast of Loco Bloco’s social justice musical On The Hill: I Am Alex Nieto. The piece, which opens at the end of the month, explores the impact of racial injustice through the death of Alex Nieto, a young man who was killed by police officers in Bernal Heights park in March 2014. Alex had been enjoying a burrito before his shift as a security guard. He had a Taser on his belt that the policemen say they thought was a gun, prompting them to shoot 59 shots at him, 14 to 15 of which hit his body.
“Alex serves as a symbol,” said playwright and director Paul S. Flores . “Alex’s memory is our memory, what happens to him happens to us. I am Alex Nieto! If he is forgotten, then we are forgotten and we can’t have that.”
Flores stood in the darkened courtyard outside the brightly lit classroom, taking a short break while his co-director Eric Reid kept rehearsal going inside. As the chanting carried outside, Flores spoke of the relationship youth in gentrifying neighborhoods have with the police, how easy it is for a newcomer to feel threatened by someone who was born and raised there and how quickly the police react.
“Alex was dead within four minutes of the 911 call,” he says. “And yet the people who called 911 were able to just pack up their stuff and go to Marin. Could the Nietos move? No, they are poor. The privilege involved in this case, the injustice in it, hits really deep in our community.”
The play has been in the works for over a year, taking a turn in March 2016 when a predominantly white federal jury found that the officers involved in Nieto’s death had not used excessive force. In preparation Flores and others interviewed his parents, Elvira and Refugio Nieto, his girlfriend, friends and many others. Since the young cast would be telling the stories of real people Flores felt it was important for them to meet with some of those involved.
“They are not always ready for the emotional elements that come up,” he said. “You are asking a young person to take on somebody’s trauma.”
Lochlein “Lony” Sekona, 21, Melli Gomez, 19 and Stephanie Tomasulo, 18, stayed behind after the rehearsal to talk about their roles.
Gomez, who plays Elvira Nieto, reflected on the powerful experience of meeting Nieto’s mother and how she wrote a monologue from her perspective about being a woman of color, who’s child is taken away.
“She has a very quiet anger, you can feel it under the surface,”said Gomez,a sophomore at the University of San Francisco, majoring in psychology. “I think at the same time the hardest and the best thing is knowing that I am portraying a real person. That this is a real woman who this happened to and is still out there trying to get justice for her son.”
For Sekona, who identifies not as Latino or black but is “ambiguously brown,” it can be hard to tap into the emotional investment that comes with telling this story. However, the most frustrating thing, he said, is trying to explain the issues of racial discrimination to those who don’t care or want the protests silenced.
“I think trying to engage in these conversations has made me very emotionally heated,” he said. “It frustrates me trying to talk to people that I love, trying to let them know that this is something that I care about and has affected not only the communities that I have come into contact with but people who have become my friends.”
Tomasulo’s experience made it into the beginning of the play where she tells of how, at the age of 13, she had to act as translator between her Spanish speaking family members and English speaking hospital staff as her grandmother was dying. Through this act of translation in a time when understanding is simultaneously crucial and impossible, she feels a connection with the Nieto’s and that they actually managed a small amount of justice.
“The way they never gave up,” she said shaking her head. “They finally got a lawyer that was able to translate for them.”
Outside the classroom, only moments before, their director had teared up while speaking of how another cast member shares his fight with depression in the play. Seeing his uncle murdered, Flores said of the actor, gave him post-traumatic stress disorder.
“All this stuff is so personal to these kids,” Flores said, his voice cracking slightly. “It’s not just Alex it’s all of them.”
*On The Hill* is especially aimed at Spanish speaking audiences that can identify with the subject matter, youth of color and their families. Around 30 percent of the play is in Spanish by Flores’ estimate, the rest in English, but he says that newcomers in the community would be welcomed.
“The case has created conflict between the new residents and the long term residents,” he said. “I feel like we have created an opportunity for there to be a safe space to come talk about it and to listen.”
Flores believes that the music in the play, the singing and dancing, will help heal the community, as anyone can relate to a good song.
“That’s going to help balance out the grief, showing the moments of catharsis where the dance allows people to breath. You forget you are watching a piece about tragedy,” he said.
Still Sekona, Tomasulo and Gomez are quick to remind anyone that On The Hill is not your run of the mill happy-go-lucky musical. Gomez wants people to realize the black and brown people getting shot are more than a name, a statistic or a hashtag.
“Not everyone get’s their story told like Alex but everyone had a story and everyone had a life. It is more than a person that is gone or a life that is gone, it is opportunity being taken away from the world.”