By Ed Rampell
Canto I: From Page to Stage
The Actors’ Gang has teamed up with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit group Get Lit – Words Ignite to present Dante, a spoken word musical adaptation of the first part of the Divine Comedy entitled Inferno. The Culver City theater company’s artistic director, Academy Award winner Tim Robbins, co-produces with Diane Luby Lane, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit pro-literacy youth program Get Lit – Words Ignite. The production is being performed through July 29.
While Get Lit’s spoken word artists have been performing in monthly poetry slams at The Actors’ Gang’s Ivy Substation theater in Culver City since 2009, this is the first time since its founding in 2006 that they are staging a full play, and the company’s first real collaboration with The Actors’ Gang, which is directed by Cynthia Ettinger.
Lane was inspired to adapt Dante’s book for the stage after taking an online course called “Dante in Translation” taught by author Giuseppe Mazzotta, Sterling Professor of the Humanities for Italian at Yale University and former president of the Dante Society of America. Co-writer Raoul Herrera (who also plays Ulysses in Dante) started as a Get Lit Player in the 11th grade at Alhambra High School.
Canto II: What Role Art?
According to Lane, Get Lit has a curriculum that is used by English and drama teachers in about 100 mostly California schools “that introduces teenagers, primarily high school students, to classic poems. We ask them to memorize and perform those poems – and then write back their own spoken word responses to those pieces, which they also memorize and perform.” Examples of the acclaimed poetry Get Lit’s lessons use are Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.
Although the Get Lit talents are mostly newcomers to acting, surviving life on L.A.’s mean streets prepared the novice actors to adapt Dante’s Inferno – after all, they can readily identify with literature’s original character who went through Hell. “We’re ready for a new challenge, a full-length show,” asserted Lane.
The Gang is noted for another outreach program, its renowned Prison Project, which presents acting workshops to inmates in California penal institutions. Dante similarly seeks to elevate the disadvantaged through theater.
Robbins envisions the stage’s role as transcending that of being mere distraction. “From its beginnings, theater has always been a gathering place, a forum for ideas, humor and stories that mattered to the people who assembled. These were communities gathered in the anticipation of the unexpected, the revelation, the sacred. Theater as community. Accessible to all. Like a poetry slam,” mused the writer/director/actor.
Lane stressed the importance of arts education, saying, “It’s terribly sad that kids today have to beg for deep, rich education…”
Unsurprisingly, Lane – who has worked in literacy and poetry programs in elementary, middle, and especially high schools for more than 11 years – thinks cutbacks in arts education are “tragic. The arts are the only reason a lot of kids come to school… [they impart a sense of] community, identity – it’s an opportunity to shine…”
Lane contends that creative pursuits provide avenues of self-expression, without which “kids completely shut down. They can’t function. You have to allow for it – the arts give you time during the school day to deal with these issues, to be inspired. It’s absolutely a necessity. The Greeks said you need athletics, academics, and the arts.”
In terms of turning lives around, Get Lit alums Walter Finnie and Kyland Turner – who were childhood friends in Watts and who currently co-star as Virgil and Dante – are now, Lane said, writers on a Netflix series.
Canto III: Get Lit Gets Hamilton, White House
In a country filled with urban hellholes, Lane said, “Our hope is to tour this play and create curricula from it that we can share with young people all over the nation. They should be exposed to some of the best literature of all time. Dante’s Inferno is that book.”
The aspiration for a U.S. tour and curriculum used nationwide may be more than just an impossible dream. Previously, Get Lit’s pupil poets made three trips to the White House during President Obama’s administration. Get Lit Players were also flown to Manhattan to attend the final performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda as the title character in the play he created, Hamilton. About two years before co-starring in Hamilton, Daveed Diggs and Dante co-bard Raoul Herrera taught performance poetry together in L.A. at Get Lit’s headquarters and at various schools.
After Diggs’ star turn on Broadway, Lane asked the former teacher for tickets so the Get Lit Players could see the hip-hop sensation with its multi-cultural cast portraying America’s founders on the Great White Way. Given 30-plus tickets, the inner city Angelenos flew to Manhattan where, in addition to enjoying Hamilton, Diggs joined them at Midtown’s Drama Book Shop for a reading of the just-published Get Lit Rising.
“We went backstage and met everybody,” gushed Lane. “It was very inspiring for our kids because our cast is mostly kids of color and they come from backgrounds where most of our cast doesn’t have a lot of money. They weren’t attending after-school classes as children; they didn’t have any opportunities like that. Hamilton is very unusual, anyway – so, for them to go, and see people that look like them and achieve to such a degree. We were already in process with Dante – they came home and knew they could do this, too.”
Lane added that Hamilton also influenced Dante in terms of style. “Our kids are not singers per se, and seeing how Hamilton incorporated rap and music, it was, like, okay, let’s evolve our story in that way. Daveed recommended Wilkie Ferguson to help us with our play. Wilkie, who co-directed the Boys Choir of Harlem and performed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play In the Heights and has lots of Broadway experience, created original music for Dante [performed by a live band]. He’s been teaching our kids a lot about how to create and be in a musical.”
Of course, Get Lit’s interaction with The Actors’ Gang has also been influential. Robbins observed: “Working with and sponsoring Get Lit for eight years, I’ve seen shy, quiet kids transform into full-voiced confident adult poets. I’ve seen minds open up and smiles from unlikely places.”
Canto IV: Adapting Dante’s 1472 Inferno for 2017 Theater
Dante Alighieri, the pre-Renaissance writer born circa 1265 in the city-state of Florence, created the famed 14th century epic poem. In that Dante’s Inferno the ancient Roman poet Virgil, author of the epic Latin poem the Aeneid, leads Alighieri’s alter ego on a guided tour of Hell. As part of his spiritual quest, Dante must pass through this underworld realm composed of nine concentric “circles” representing intensified evils that lead to Hell’s center, where Satan lives. The increasingly sinful attributes range from lust and gluttony to greed, violence, fraud and the ninth circle, treachery.
How does one render a book published in 1472 (half a century after Dante’s death) accessible and meaningful to 21st century theater audiences? According to Robbins, “The same temptations, the same demons, the same greed, avarice, lust exist now, as in Dante’s day. The same circles of Hell. It is relevant to any time.”
In the Inferno the narrator who journeys through Hell is Dante himself, and in Get Lit’s play the central character is likewise named “Dante.” To enhance the 14th century Divine Comedy’s relevancy for 2017 urban theatergoers, in Get Lit’s adaptation, Virgil first encounters Dante agonizing behind bars, before he guides the prisoner on his spiritual journey for redemption. “Many poets in the production have family members that are currently or were formerly incarcerated, which directly affects their lives,” noted Lane.
Get Lit’s Dante cleverly transforms the original work’s circles into a series of contemporary L.A. locations. The red-tinged playbill’s cover cleverly superimposes a hellish image over a picture of Downtown Los Angeles.
Canto V: Conclusion
Each show is followed by themed talkbacks and events. The July 8 premiere was themed “Lust,” so naturally there was a single’s night reception, along with a live poet who pounded out made-to-order romantic verses on an old manual typewriter. According to Lane, following the sold out July 14th performance Prof. Mazzotta, the Dante expert, participated in the post-show “Philosopher’s Garden” motif. For the July 15 “Gluttony” theme, celebrity chefs but-of-course provided foodies with a smorgasbord.
Dante runs through July 29 at The Actors’ Gang. However, as the second and third parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy are Purgatorio and Paradiso, one can’t help but wonder if, in that grand Tinseltown tradition, a sequel to Get Lit’s Dante may be in the offing?
Dante is presented by The Actors’ Gang & Get Lit – Words Ignite at The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City, California 90232. Performances run Thursday through Saturday at 8p.m. through July 29th.
For tickets: https://theactorsgang.secure.force.com/ticket
For a complete list of talkbacks after show activities: http://getlit.org/2017/06/dante-2017/
Canto VI: Fun Fact
Dante is believed to have written Divine Comedy when he was exiled from Florence, after he’d become embroiled in the city-state’s factional warfare. If Dante returned there without paying a large fine levied against him, the poet faced being burned at the stake. With its wanderings and yearnings to find paradise, Dante’s Inferno may be viewed as an allegory for forced exile, written by a distraught outcast. Fun Fact of the article: The sentence against Italy’s greatest poet wasn’t stricken from the records by Florence’s city council until 2008. It only took them 700 years. Talk about a quest for redemption!