ORLANDO — John DiDonna is well aware that just saying the name Trayvon Martin evokes very strong emotions in people.
The same can be true when talking about Jordan Davis. Martin, of Sanford, and Davis, of Jacksonville, were young black men who were shot to death by men who were not black.
Because of the passionate feelings many have about these two cases, DiDonna noted, there were some misconceptions about the Valencia College Theater’s premiere of his new docudrama, “Division: The Trayvon/Jordan Project,” which will be staged in the Valencia East Campus Black Box Theater for a limited engagement that runs from Feb. 11-16.
“This is turning into something that we didn’t anticipate,” DiDonna said, adding that once people understand what the aim of this project is, they become very supportive.
“We’re very pleased,” said DiDonna, the chairman of Valencia’s theater department, who wrote “Division” in collaboration with his students.
“It’s enriching to know that people are this interested in the dialogue we’re having,’ he said.
DiDonna added that it’s important to keep in mind that “Divisions” is not meant to be divisive, or political – or to exploit either murder case.
“This is not to incite anybody,” he said. “This is not to anger anybody. All points of view are represented. Our whole agenda was two boys are dead. We didn’t say wrongfully dead, we didn’t say rightfully dead. We just said … ‘Why?’ We had to strike any agenda or personal bias out of the show. I can honestly say that there are lots of opinions in the play, and they are reflective of everything from black to gray to white.
“We’re looking at it to focus the dialogue on what is happening right now in the world,” he added.
This play, which DiDonna defines as a docudrama, is part of a yearlong project between multiple theaters and producers in Central Florida.
“I used to write a lot of docudramas years ago,” DiDonna said, adding that one of them, “Stripped,” premiered at Orlando’s annual Playfest.
The high profile of both the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases, DiDonna noted, brought him back to this subject.
The man who killed Martin, George Zimmerman, was put on trial and acquitted. Michael Dunn, who killed Davis, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In both cases, though, a lot of questions were left unanswered long after the trails were over.
Last year, theater producer Beth Marshall, though her Beth Marshall Presents local production company, did “The Trayvon Martin Project” as a series of one act plays.
“I participated in the ‘Travyon Martin Project’ she did,” DiDonna said. “I directed one of the pieces.”
Prior to that, though, DiDonna had started work on the docudrama project with his students. Early in 2014, he began working with them to create this unique form of documentary theater.
His theater students conducted more than 100 hours of interviews, then worked in a special class that created the docudrama.
It explores the reaction to both murders, including the impact, fallout and legacy of the two cases.
“A class of students was created, and they had the opportunity with me to interview tons of people — people who led the protests, politicians, lawyers and students,” DiDonna said. “And we got a wide range of opinions, about 150 hours of interviews, and from that we crafted this play. It’s not about the incident; it’s not reenacting the events of that night. It’s characters from the interviews we did, and how it impacted lives, how it has opened up questions in our society. We talk about Stand your Ground (state gun laws), and racism and mothers and sons. We talk about change.”
The play was written by DiDonna in collaboration with students William Adkins, Aidan Bohan-Moulton, Carolyn Ducker, Phillip Edwards, Nathan Jones, Anneliese Moon, Elina Moon, Dennis Ramos, Stelson Telfort and Michael Sabbagh.
The production will be accompanied by photos taken by Michael Gavin of Jacksonville, along with a series of photos taken during the protests, marches and trials by photojournalist Barry Kirsch.
The six performances run Feb. 11 through Feb. 16 — which is the birthday of Jordan Davis and “Jordan Davis Day” in Jacksonville — and staged in the Black Box Theater, located in Building 3 on Valencia’s East Campus.
A talk-back with the director, students writers and cast will be held after each performance. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. each night except for Sunday, Feb. 15, when the performance is at 2 p.m.
General admission tickets cost $12, and $10 for seniors, Valencia faculty, staff and students. Tickets can be purchased onlineor by calling the college box office at 407-582-2900.
“We reached out to a lot of the people who were intimately involved in the case, and our opening night is turning into something we were not anticipating,” DiDonna said. “We are working with the Trayvon Martin Foundation on this, in agreement with them, and they have been in contact with us on a regular basis.”
To coincide with the play, the Anita S. Wooten Gallery at Valencia College East Campus will host “Lost Sons of America,” through Feb. 27. The exhibit features photographs from the archives of the Associated Press and The Florida Times Union that document the events surrounding the deaths.
The gallery is open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will also be open from 5-9:30 p.m. on the evenings of performances (Feb. 11-14 and Feb. 16) and on Feb. 15 from 1 to 5 p.m.
For more information on the gallery and the exhibition, call 407-582-2298 or 407-582-2268.
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