PATERSON, NJ- When Nicholas Rodriguez was a young boy in 1970s Paterson, he already knew he loved the performing arts. Unlike some artistic kids, he didn’t have to look far to find his tribe. When he was 12, he auditioned for the city’s Inner City Ensemble in order to explore the worlds of theater and dance.

He joined the group in 1975. After graduating from Paterson’s Public School 4 and John F. Kennedy High School, he earned a BFA in dance from the Julliard School, then came back to the Ensemble as a guest artist to help teach.

Fast forward (as we used to say back in the day) to 2019.

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The Inner City Ensemble, which disbanded after founder Ralph Gomez died in 1986, returned in 2010. Rodriguez is now their artistic director and choreographer (in addition to serving as assistant director of the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council at Passaic County Community College). 

Putting his art into action, and recognizing that discord and strife, especially in America's urban centers, often seem to dominate the headlines, Rodriguez recently wrote and choreographed a 45-minute “dance theater response” to some of the issues affecting today’s youth in America. The ensemble will perform the show “Where Have You Gone, Trayvon – A Dance Theater Response” on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. The performances, both open to the public, will be followed by a panel talk-back with the audience and special guests.

The performances are intended for mature audiences, as some viewers may find the subject matter disturbing; however, there will be student groups in the audience.

“It addresses themes of social justice and reform,” Rodriguez, also a Fulbright Scholar, told TAPinto Paterson. “It’s not literal. The work is creative and it’s meant to be imaginative, although the subject [shootings of young men of color] does come up with spoken word and imagery.”

In 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American teen, was walking from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla. to his father’s fiancee’s house. A neighbor, George Zimmerman, the head of the local community watch, called police to say he looked suspicious. After some sort of confrontation, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter in 2013.

Rodriguez said that his students have opinions on tragedies like this one, but often have to be encouraged to speak out. 

“They may not express something because they worry they’re too young, or their opinion won’t be seen as valid,” he said.

He noted that they’ve been speaking out more as they rehearse.

“My rehearsal assistant and co-choreographer, Tamere Chambers, who is 19 years old, said the police officer’s monologue, which begins the show, lets the audience to see a cop as a full human being,” he said. “That was important to me.”

He said that students aren’t the only ones who are sometimes reluctant to talk about controversies.

“I think one of the most remarkable things about this project is,” he said, “both teenagers and adults are very apprehensive to talk about [the topic].

But if they see a work like this, that’s non-verbal, it almost becomes a starting point, an opportunity for dialogue. I’d like for it to initiate healthy dialogue, constructive conversations and healing. It’s a tall order. But there is no healing without dialogue.”

Most students in the ensemble, for which they have to audition, are 12 to 16 years old. They attend after school, and some also enroll in the summer program.

Ninety-five percent of the students involved in the ensemble are Paterson residents. Many attend the Rosa L. Parks School of Fine and Performing Arts in Paterson. The school brings guest artists to speak to and inspire the student body.

Rodriguez said the show will also be performed at the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts on the Friday after the Paterson shows. He is in discussions with other schools to possibly host performances in 2020.

Paterson’s Got Talent

Among other things that he hopes come from the show, Rodriguez wants the audience to see the talent that’s in Paterson.

“One thing is for the students, parents, and the public in general to see what our youth in Paterson are capable of creatively,” he said. “There’s a high caliber of ability and there are artists in Paterson creating sophisticated, compelling work in many genres. Our students are capable of a wide range of styles.”

He added, “I want our artists to learn that in addition to performing well, they can also use the arts as a mechanism for change. I see the young people becoming the arts advocates they want to be, agents for change using their skill and their art.”

There’s a bigger picture, he said: “It’s incredible to watch young people present and interpret work about people they identify with. I hope this process brings about possible conversation and respectful dialogue. The arts are a very powerful tool.”

More details

The Inner City Ensemble will present the show at the PCCC Founders Theater, 203 Ellison St. (corner of Memorial Drive), Paterson. The performance is in partnership with the dance department at Rosa L. Parks School of Fine and Performing Arts, and in conjunction with the Passaic County Community College (PCCC) Men of Color Success Initiative. 

The two free shows will occur Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. They’re made possible with support from the Passaic County Cultural & Heritage Council with funding from a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts ArtWorks grant.

Jane Stein and William Paterson University commissioned the Inner City Ensemble to develop this work starting in 2018 through its “The Law, Society & Race” residency. Additionally, the PCCHC has published Reaching for Light, a book of poems written by inmates. Selected poems from the anthology will be used to created new sections for the PCCC performances.

For more information, please contact nrodriguez@pccc.edu or call 973-684-6507.