Brandon Rainey attended three funerals last summer.
Two of his former students and a brother of one of his students had been shot and killed during the 100 days and 100 nights of violence declared by two feuding gangs in South Los Angeles in late summer of 2015. They had been shot standing in front of a friend’s house, walking down the street or while sitting in a car.
Rainey, who used to be a drama teacher, knew several students who had been shot in drive-by shootings in past years. He said his anger culminated in last summer’s tragically repetitive cycle, and he was compelled to voice his frustration in a play.
“These were innocent kids,” Rainey said. “They weren’t involved in gangs, in any kind of negative stuff. And they still found themselves on the other side of this bullet.”
Rainey crafted “A Tale of Two M.A.A.D Citiez,” a hip-hop musical set to the songs of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, in response to last summer’s tragedies. The show evolved out of a message Rainey felt needed to be heard: People must assume the responsibility of ending the prevalence of violent killings in underprivileged communities, rather than remain idle and indifferent to death.
The musical will be performed in the Northwest Campus Auditorium on Sunday, brought to UCLA by the Afrikan Arts Ensemble, a group that fosters the representation of African-American culture through music, dance, art, writing and theater.
Rainey decided that a hip-hop score would make his piece more appealing, especially to his intended audience of high school and college students who may not be fans of theater.
He said using the music of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole seemed fitting. Rainey, a fan of the two rappers, recalled listening to the albums “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and appreciating their cohesive storylines that touched upon the hardships of African-Americans, staying connected to one’s hometown and appreciating the good in life.
By October, Rainey had started penning the beginnings of a script in a journal. As he analyzed how to mold his ideas into a story, his writing spilled into addressing issues other than gang violence. He felt he needed to address injustice in its various forms, from police brutality to racism on college campuses.
When developing the collegial setting of the show, Rainey reached out to Dashawn Barnes, a fourth-year theater student and one of his former students, to inquire about social injustices in her college environment.
In their long phone conversation, they discussed the “Kanye Western” themed party at UCLA that occurred in the fall, the Black Lives Matter movement’s progress on campus and the need for positive role models in underprivileged neighborhoods in South LA.
“The discussion was really just about being young and gifted and black, and figuring out how to navigate that when you don’t feel like you are valued,” Barnes said.
Rainey’s discussion with Barnes provided Rainey with inspiration as he crafted the musical’s two main characters, brothers Jaden and Caden, who live in different worlds. Caden turns to the streets, where he gets involved with gangs and experiments with drugs, and Jaden immerses himself in college life and joins a fraternity.
In juxtaposing Caden’s journey and Jaden’s college experience, Rainey said he was able to speak to high schoolers about fighting potential gang involvement and emphasizing to college students the harmful racist attitudes that may prevail on campus.
Cedric D. Ingram Jr., an actor and musician who plays Jaden in the show, read through the show’s script for the first time and found striking connections with the show’s material.
Ingram identified Caden’s storyline as similar to his brother’s, who is currently in jail. In a scene where a character is shot, he recalled when a high school classmate, who was a member of a gang, was killed four days before his classmate’s birthday.
For Ingram, delving into difficult memories from the past in the show has been a valuable, cathartic experience.
“Who gets a chance to really embrace those moments? I’m not jealous of the audience, because the cast gets to let all of those emotions out,” Ingram said.
Rainey sees “A Tale of Two M.A.A.D. Citiez” as his own form of artful protest. Pouring his convictions into the script of a musical, he said, is a way for him to engage a wider audience in a discussion about injustice and accountability.
In the musical, Rainey included a line from previous plays he has written: “I know you’re tired of hearing this, but we still haven’t gotten the message.” The line, Rainey said, has become his own personal proverb, encapsulating his frustration with how the killings of innocent young lives still continue to occur.
“I’m going to keep pushing this stuff – I’m going to keep trying to fight this fight until I die,” Rainey said.