Tuesday, July 22, 2008
A play is born from a dangerous experience
One-man show based on actor’s involvement in hazing incident
By LINDSAY KEY â€¢ The News Journal â€¢ July 22, 2008
WILMINGTON — A TV soap opera star is coming to Wilmington to perform his one-man show about the dangers of fraternity hazing, a topic with which he is intimately familiar.
Cornelius Smith Jr., who plays Frankie Hubbard on ABC’s “All My Children,” becomes seven characters in “Frayed” to chronicle the journey of Aries, a young black man, as he tries to fit in on his college campus.
He wrote the play as his graduation thesis for a master’s degree in art at New York University last year. The story is based on a hazing incident at Southern Methodist University (Dallas) that got Smith kicked out of school.
In 2004, just three months before graduation, Smith and seven other members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at SMU were arrested and expelled for an initiation rite that left one student near death in a coma from overhydration after drinking massive amounts of water.
Criminal and civil charges were filed against Smith and each of the other young men involved. They faced up to 20 years in jail.
The victim recovered. Three years later, all charges were dropped. Today, Smith takes full responsibility for his actions.
“We all make choices in life,” he said. “I didn’t make a smart decision at that time, but it was a choice I made freely.”
Smith finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Arlington before moving to New York City for graduate school. By the time NYU requested a thesis, he felt he had dealt with the emotional trauma of the incident.
“We were, basically, able to do whatever we wanted, so it really gave me a chance to share my story,” Smith said.
“When you face a traumatic event, it can make you a better and stronger person and artist. This play was something that was already on my heart to do because it’s something people don’t really know about.”
Raye Avery Jones, CCAC executive director, knew “Frayed” was based on a real incident, but didn’t realize until last week that Smith had been involved in it.
“That makes the telling of the story even more powerfully important,” she said by e-mail. “Cornelius’ rise from a very dark place has given birth to a relevant, inspirational, personal offering of contemporary theater that speaks to real life.
“My passionate plea is that people young and old will experience this play and learn a painful lesson vicariously. The honest re-telling of this story may prevent someone from making a tragic mistake that may cost another human life.”
Hazing is the practice of older fraternity members harassing new ones during initiation. Web sites are devoted to compiling hazing incidents in a effort to wipe out that practice, which sometimes includes beatings and worse.
Hazing isn’t well-understood outside of college fraternal organizations and causes a great deal of controversy and turmoil in the fraternal world, Smith said.
“The chapters within these organizations that haze don’t have as much respect for the chapters that don’t engage in hazing,” he said. “It’s like they say, ‘You haven’t earned your right.’ “
He said it’s difficult to be a voice of reason within the organizations that haze.
“It’s not the whole fraternity that feels this way,” he explained. “There are those who are saying, ‘It’s not worth it.’ “
Smith doesn’t volunteer information about the SMU incident, but he doesn’t shy away when asked about it. He said he hopes the play brings awareness to the issue.
“My desire to speak out on hazing is served in this play,” he said. “I just hope that it brings inspiration to others and sparks conversation about an issue that’s not necessarily common knowledge.”
Jones says that “Frayed” is a showcase for Smith’s talent.
“He plays seven characters and he sings, all with no props or costume changes,” she explained. “But when he gets into character for each part, you know exactly who he is portraying.”
The play was first performed New York City last summer. It caught the attention of Benjamin
Cannon, ballet master at the CCAC, who had been planning to launch a series of experimental theater pieces at the downtown Wilmington community arts center.
When he saw “Frayed,” Cannon said, “I knew it was something I wanted to bring back to Wilmington. It was powerful, and I was blown away.”
“Frayed” is part of “New Works,” a three-show series Cannon created to promote new, innovative art.
“We want to provide thought-provoking productions for the community. We want to provide pieces that people can relate to.”
“Frayed” is the second in the series, which is co-produced by the CCAC. The first was a May 26 production of “Broadway My Way” by Alton White. The series will end Sept. 18 with another play, “Flagboy,” by Cornelius “Life” Jones Jr.
“This center is one of the premier art education institutions in Delaware,” Cannon said. “We want to be on the cutting edge of the arts community in Wilmington.”
He’s listed as a co-producer of “Frayed,” which was fleshed out with the help of a New York artist-development company called Launch. “Frayed” was the first show taken on after Launch was founded last year by “Frayed” director Kibibi Dillon, Tamilla Woodard and Nyakya Brown. They hope to nurture up-and-coming artists who are trying to break into the professional world.
Dillon likes the fact that “Frayed” is specific to the black experience, but it speaks to the human experience as well.
“It really has a universal message,” she said. “It’s about a man who has a dream, and his dream is shattered. We have all experienced that feeling at some point in our lives.”