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An American Idiot for the Black Lives Matter era

“The struggles are very similar in terms of feeling like you are in a system that seems to be against you.”

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Television broadcasts another shooting, police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook spotlights countless disturbing scenes worldwide. Twitter drowns in partisan bickering.

A media-saturated everytown is the setting for Green Day’s American Idiot. The 2010 Broadway rock opera returns to Pittsburgh for four performances by Alumni Theater Company (ATC), a troupe that celebrates the experiences and contributions of young urban artists. The new production broadens themes like the effect of media to include the realities of black teenagers today.

In the musical, friends Johnny, Tunny and Will are fed up with media saturation, each rebelling against suburban ennui and confronting drugs, war, rage and love. ATC’s version highlights an Afro-punk sensibility — African pride mixed with anti-establishment political beliefs.

“The punk-rock movement, in itself, is very rebellious and has a lot of parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement,” says ATC’s Hallie Donner, who directs the show. “The struggles are very similar in terms of feeling like you are in a system that seems to be against you.”

The all-black cast ranges in age from 16 to 23. Videos projected for the audience display a media narrative about African Americans that expands the underlying themes to encompass Black Lives Matter. Unlike the original musical’s focus on television, the images here come mainly from social media.

“While initially [videos depicting police violence have] been used to bring light to these issues, it actually furthers our trauma,” says Tyra Jamison, who plays Will’s girlfriend Heather. “How would it feel to be scrolling down your timeline, just for something mindless, and you see someone who could be you or someone you love [harmed] over and over again? How does that affect who you are? I think what I want audiences to walk away with is a sense that this is real.”

Donner seconds the 2004 album’s continuing significance.

“All of the issues [Green Day was] writing about — being so blinded by media all the time — are so much more prevalent now than they were,” she says. “Now everyone carries media around wherever they go, which wasn’t really the case when the concept of this musical was first created. All of the things they were cautioning Americans against have gotten so much worse. As time goes on, it has become even more relevant.”


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