This One Girl’s Story is a new musical inspired by the life of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old African American lesbian who was murdered in a hate crime at a Newark, New Jersey bus stop in 2003.
Over 2,500 people attended Sakia Gunn’s funeral, despite limited media coverage of the murder. Her assailant, Richard McCullough turned himself in--claiming that Gunn ran into his knife--and pleaded guilty to lesser charges of aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and bias intimidation. He was sentenced and is now serving 20 years in prison.
But that isn’t what This One Girl’s Story is about.
Through music, movement and dialogue this play involving a murder is really about life—friendship, forgiveness, and the excitement of being one’s true self.
Bil Wright, an English professor at BMCC who teaches creative writing, playwriting and literature wrote the play, and the young African-American composer Dionne McClain-Freeney wrote the music. Wright was moved to tell Sakia Gunn’s story after watching a documentary about her murder, Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project, by filmmaker Charles Brack—whose camera was the only one at the trial.
In the weeks following Gunn’s murder, the Newark community reacted with rallies and vigils, prompting several LGBT organizations to form, including the Newark Pride Alliance and Sakia Gunn Aggressives & Femmes, as well as a scholarship fund in her name. May 23, the day Gunn was murdered, was declared by Newark’s Mayor as "No Name Calling Day."
“We all have stories to tell,” said Wright. “Some are more hopeful, and yet all of them, I believe, are inspirational, if we can learn from them. And the story of Sakia Gunn is not one that people know about. The same kind of tragedy happened to Matthew Shepherd and there was a great deal [of media coverage]—but the murder of Sakia Gunn in Newark, New Jersey—people say, no I’m not familiar with that, who is she?”
The story-telling power of music
Choosing to tell the Sakia Gunn story as a musical, and working with composer Dionne McClain-Freeney was a choice Wright based on his sense of who Gunn was, and who her story would speak to.
“I felt that Charles Brack did an excellent job covering the actual details,” said Wright. “But what I wanted to do was something that was perhaps more poetic, and when I thought in terms of who I understood this young girl to be—she was 15 years old—I know that music was a very big part of her life, and part of the lives of her friends, and I wanted to extend the vocabulary of the piece to not just spoken word, but also to music.”
“Bil's a great storyteller, and this has been an incredible journey,” said McClain-Freeney, who wrote the play’s music and lyrics. “As a songwriter, I think of myself as a storyteller also, and I'm honored to be able to tell a young woman's story; a young woman of color, and a young lesbian of color.”
“I wanted to get the story out there,” said Wright. “I know that music is a very powerful tool and theater is a very powerful tool and I wanted to combine both of them. The music in the play spans a broad spectrum going from gospel to pop to rhythm and blues to spoken word, to something almost operatic. So it’s really covering such a broad range.”
This One Girl’s Story takes its place in a long tradition of American musical theater that doesn’t shy away from harsh political realities and social complexity.
“We worked in terms of a traditional musical,” said Wright, “in the sense that we do have an arc of the story of that evening. I was really struck by the image of Valencia [Sakia's friend who witnessed the murder] in the courtroom, and imagining what it would be like for a 15-year-old to show up, and have to provide testimony about holding her best friend in her arms as she died, in such a tragic way.”
The Gift of Love
Wright, who also authored the critically acclaimed novels Sunday You Learn How to Box, One Foot in Love and When the Black Girl Sings, which won a 2007 Junior Library Guild Award is a member of the Dramatists Guild and graduate of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. His directing credits include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde, and his poetry and short fiction have appeared in the anthologies Black Like Us and Black Silk.
Presented off-Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Complex on West 36th Street in Manhattan--and likely to appear in other festivals and theaters down the road--This One Girl’s Story was selected from an international pool of submissions, and was part of the Gayfest NYC 2010 festival benefiting the scholarship fund of The Harvey Milk High School, a New York City public high school focusing on the needs of GLBT youth at risk of physical or emotional harm, if they remain in a traditional educational environment.
Four students from the Harvey Milk School received high school credit for interning with Gayfest NYC, and while packed audiences for This One Girl’s Story are a mix of people of all ages, their peers are clearly drawn to the story.
“I particularly wanted to reach out to young people with a piece like this,” said Wright. “I’m struck, as a professor, by so many students who are still feeling that they can’t be who they are, and that they are afraid to tell their stories.”
“I teach autobiography this semester,” he added, “and I’ve found that there are certain students who feel really shy about saying exactly who they are and who they love and who loves them."
"Part of my mission for being in the classroom," said Wright, "is to tell students not to be afraid of communicating to the world who they are, and what they bring to the world. I know it sounds corny, but it is such a gift to be loved. If anyone loves you, and you want to talk about it, you absolutely should be able to say who that person is.”