Freshman Writes, Produces Play for Social Justice

Jeremy Ashton has big dreams.

Someday, he wants to change the world. For now, the freshman English major has settled for writing, directing and producing an original play that was recently performed in the Little Theatre. The proceeds from the play, which was inspired by the children with whom Ashton volunteers, were donated to victims of domestic violence.

            The play was titled Broken Psalms: A Staged Rapture and featured a cast of student performers.

Originally, the plan was to put on another show, one written by a professional playwright. That play was called “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide,” and Ashton first read it during a poetry class.  As he was speaking to his poetry professor one day, she suggested that he write his own play.

“She said that’s great but why don’t you just write your own play?” Ashton said. “And I was like you know what, that’s a great idea, let’s do that.”

Midway into rehearsals, Ashton and the cast discarded the first play for his original work, which ultimately became “a social commentary using mythological characters.”

            The play consisted of a cast of five women, each representing a different goddess or strong female from literature, speaking about their challenges.

The title—Broken Psalms—comes from a poem Ashton wrote. “The first poetic piece in the play after the intro is Isis, and there’s a line in there about ‘No, you didn’t make me, I made you my god and sang you broken psalms’” he explained. “[The title] came from my poem.”

The story behind the subtitle is a little more complicated. “It’s a staged rapture because…there’s one main character and this chorus of women,” Ashton said. The main charater, Amaru, begins the show with a narrative about how she is considering suicide. “She’s narrating the show and she gives each woman a goddess, and the woman steps forward and starts telling her story,” said Ashton.

“We called it a staged rapture because I was really heavily influenced by some playwrights that weren’t really traditional playwrights,” Ashton explained.

The plot was based largely off of classical myths. For example, Daphne was Apollo’s concubine, so Ashton chose to use her story “as a way to comment on abusive relationships.”

“Isis was this strong powerful woman, who decides to leave this man,” Ashton said. “The original myth of Isis is so powerful in itself…that idea of loving someone who’s broken and pulling them back together.”

Ashton took on the responsibility of writing, casting, producing and directing Broken Psalms. Although he directed an adaptation at his performing-arts high school in Florida last year, this was his first original show. Next fall, he hopes to produce another theater piece, this one called Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht.

The all-student cast of Broken Psalms seemed to just fall into place. Ashton said, “There were two girls I knew I wanted to work with, and the rest of them kind of came.” After switching from a prewritten script to an original show, Ashton was left searching for something to tie the cast and their individual experiences and narratives together. He found his heroine on campus.

“I found her at DAC coffeehouse playing during an open mic night,” Ashton said. “I saw her singing, and I thought, that’s my through-line, she’s the one who will pull all this together.” She agreed to play the role of Amaru, and the show began to coalesce.

Altogether, the cast had about a month to rehearse before the show opened.

With the addition of Amaru, Ashton said, “my cast all came together. They really were the ones who made the show the show. I made it very lyrical on purpose because I wanted to give them the show to make it their own.”

Challenges with space and time constraints plagued Ashton during production.

“The big challenge was figuring out what we were doing. Don’t start doing one play and think you can change and think that will run smoothly,” he said. “The Little Theatre was a challenge, dealing with bureaucracy was a challenge. I had to get creative with solutions.”

Overall, however, Ashton said that the show was shaped by those challenges, much as it was shaped by the challenges faced by the cast in their personal lives.

“You have no money, and you’re in the Little Theatre, and these are your constraints…that helped in a way, helped me write the show I did and stage it the way I did,” he said.

Along the way, Ashton was inspired in a significant way by his poetry professor, who originally suggested that he write his own play and by fellow student Anna Misleh, a junior sociology major who is the current president of the Ozanam Society, as well as the children at Homes for the Homeless.

“I don’t think any of this would have happened if I wasn’t working with the kids,” Ashton said.

Funds raised from the show—which had an admission fee of $3 and raised over $100 in total—were donated to an organization called My Sister’s Place, which helps victims of domestic violence. Although the organization is national, Ashton and other St. John’s students work with the Yonkers chapter, so the money will be going directly to that chapter.

“My first goal was to raise as much funds as possible for this organization,” Ashton said.

His secondary and overarching goal was to foster a culture of art on campus. He said, “I wanted to elevate the level of art our community can create, make as good a performance as possible.”

            Ashton is a member of the Ozanam Scholars Program, a scholarship program in which a small cohort of students commit to weekly service, travel and study, while earning a minor in social justice. His decision to participate in this program has changed his life.

“My work as an Ozanam scholar influenced, changed absolutely everything for me,” Ashton explained. “It was not what I was expecting it to be.”

For his weekly service commitment, “I worked with a class of homeless first graders, it’s an after-school program in a basement,” he said. As a member of the program, he made weekly trips to Homes for the Homeless, where he facilitated an after-school program for children experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty.

“Working with those kids…affected everything in my life as far as I think about how to help people, as I think about social justice issues,” Ashton said. “Knowing facts about things is great,” but watching Talia, a first-grade girl he worked with, and the other students actually experience social injustices firsthand “complicated things in the most beautiful way.”

“The thing with working with the kids is they didn’t do anything to get in the position they’re in. They just were born in the wrong spot, with the wrong color of skin, and that’s messed up. It completely changed everything in my life and affected everything in my life and my writing. It influenced me to help these kids find their own voice,” Ashton said.

His favorite type of art is spoken word poetry, closely followed by written poetry. “There’s a difference between poetry for the page and poetry for the stage, but there’s a loose line between the two, which is challenging for me,” Ashton said.

Ashton hopes to be accepted into the five-year English masters program at St. John’s. “With my four-ish years left here I want to grow as an Ozanam, as a writer and person,” he said. “I want to…figure out what I want to do with that. There are a million ideas. I want to help people, I want to use my talents, I want to marry art and poetry to social justice.”

With his commitment to the arts and social justice, Ashton says that Broken Psalms is just the beginning of his journey. In addition to producing another student-run play in the fall, he plans to create and implement a program encouraging students like those he works with at Homes for the Homeless to pursue self-expression through poetry and other creative arts.

His ultimate goal is to change the world for the better in some significant way.

“I want to build something to help the world,” he said. “When someone’s starving, you don’t have time to work with art.”

Ashton’s first step to changing the world was staging Broken Psalms, and the children at “Homes” inspired him throughout.

“I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it if I hadn’t seen Talia struggle,” he said. “I can’t think of a big solution right now so I have to think of a small one. What do I have right now? What can I do right now?”

 

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