Arts & Events

Updated: Romeo is Bleeding: Shakespeare in the Crossfire on the Streets of Richmond

Preview by Gar Smith
Friday April 24, 2015 - 02:06:00 PM

Special World Premiere: El Cerrito High School, 540 Ashbury Ave., April 29, 2015. 7:30 p.m.

San Francisco Screening: Sundance Kabuki, May 1, 2015 6:30 p.m.

UC Berkeley Screening: Pacific Film Archive, May 3, 2015 2:00 p.m.

Romeo Is Bleeding, one of the many outstanding offerings at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), is intended to take viewers on an unforgettable journey into the beating, emotional core of urban America. It delivers. A team of local filmmakers has produced a gritty and moving social documentary -- captured live on the streets of Richmond, California -- that immerses viewers in a dangerous world of drive-by shootings and poverty. But there's more to this film than blight and peril. There is also the promise of redemption.



Romeo is Bleeding follows a group of real-life Richmond teens who are inspired to challenge the climate of gang violence by staging a performance of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet -- but this time, the Bard's pentameter will be translated into the verbal ricochets of rapid-fire street rap and straight-from-the-furnace blasts of spoken word. 

Romeo is Bleeding follows 23-year-old poet Donté Clark on a quest to heal his warring city by giving the youth a means of artistic expression as a creative alternative to drugs, dealing and gangbanging. 

"We're going to take a Shakespearean play and rewrite it to fit Richmond," Clark explains, and he is well suited for the task. In addition to being a well-known spoken-word poet and a community activist, Clark also serves as the artistic director of the RAW Talent Creative Arts Program. In this capacity, he organizes field trips, poetry events and theater workshops to serve low-income youth, encouraging them to rise above the pall of street violence by expressing themselves on the public stage and the printed page. 

The violence that stalks Richmond's residents is largely fueled by a turf war between North and Central Richmond that has raged for decades. The Montagues and Capulets (the Bard's bitter rivals) were clearly on Donté's mind as he wrestled with the long process of turning Shakespeare's tragic tale into a crackling, harrowing (and frequently hilarious) stage play called "Té's Harmony." In the play (which debuted last year in two sold-out performances at the 600-seat auditorium at El Cerrito High), Romeo becomes "Té," a young man from North Richmond who falls in love with "Harmony," a star-crossed Juliet from Central. On stage and in the documentary, Harmony is fiercely embodied by Richmond native, D'Neise Robinson. 

Producing the film spanned more than a year and involved many days and nights with a film crew embedded in the heart of Richmond's home-front/war-zone. On one nighttime ride-along in a squad car, the lone policeman at the wheel grimly notes, "Sometimes we have two shootings a night." 

Jason Zeldes, Romeo's director, came to this project after working as the editor of the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom. Zeldes explains the film's goal was to deliver a slice of "visual poetry worthy of RAW Talent's work. Our vérité footage offers an unfettered view on the current state of inner city US from the perspective of our characters. 

"These perspectives range from students to city employees, from ex-convicts to police officers. As the content of the footage turns dark, we're able to cut to poetry performances, allowing us to hear our characters' most personal thoughts in response to their environment. 

"When the poetry calls on history, we cut to archival footage, allowing us to juxtapose past and present Richmond, identifying key factors behind the city's postwar decline. The film quickly falls into a cycle, where real life informs poetry, which informs history, which informs real life. We establish a positive feedback loop, where these different elements blend seamlessly together to create an emotional, experiential, artistic, and informative tapestry of an American post-industrial city." 

In addition to screening the film at San Francisco's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the SFIFF generously agreed to host the film's World Premiere in the East Bay. In order to make the screening accessible to the Richmond community whose lives and struggles are depicted, the film will debut at the El Cerrito High School auditorium. This is especially appropriate since this is where "Té's Harmony" also had its world premiere. (The people in the auditorium on April 29, will have the experience of sitting in the seats in front of the very stage that appears in the documentary.) 

KQED Film Critic Michael Fox has tagged Romeo is Bleeding as one of the "ten SFIFF tickets that will sell out" and predicts the world premiere at El Cerrito High "will be a raucous affair, but the screenings at the festival should be pretty electric, too."  

Tickets are available online at: 

General Admission: $15. Seniors: $14. Children (12 and under): $10 

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 23 -- May 7. 

Director's Statement 

Jason Zeldes  

Poverty takes on different forms depending on the landscape, but the narratives are the same. I've seen it first-hand while living in Detroit, Chicago, and now the East Bay, and I recognize that Richmond is a microcosm for the injustices seen in African American communities nationwide. The African-American narrative is generational, rooted in a culture bred on plantations, which has been evolving with the times ever since, but always achieving the same effect: the marginalization of black men. 

Originally this was accomplished through slavery, then segregation and Jim Crow, now the prison system, but black men are always labeled as "other" or worse -- criminal -- and abandoned as society's outcasts. 

And then there are leaders like Donté́, who derive pride from this history of oppression but refuse to be labeled by it. I am drawn to Donté because within him I see this convergence of a dark past and an optimistic future, battling for dominance in his heart and mind. I see an eternal conflict, a brilliant man who is both inspired and confined by his environment. He writes about this conflict in his poem titled "find me guilty": 

"I don't know who I'm supposed to be, see?  

I'm like Half Kingdom/Half Slave! 

Have some pride, no! Have shame! 

I'm half alive and half grave, 

I battle with life and death every day. 

I'm recently realizing that "Romeo is Bleeding" is about this convergence, which happens within everyone as they form their identity. Will you let your constraints define you, or will you redefine them? It's a universal question, but when it plays out in poverty-stricken communities, the stakes are high and the results are often tragic. For all the talent that lives in Richmond -- or inner cities anywhere in America for that matter -- there are so few outlets, forcing many youth to surrender to the constraints of their environment, depriving the world of their beauty while the ugliness remains. 

Using the arts to heal communities isn't a new idea, but in practice it is still shockingly rare, and communities like Richmond sorely need outlets like RAW Talent. It's my hope that Romeo is Bleeding can multiply the local and regional effect that Donté had with "Té's Harmony" and ultimately extend Donté's influence as wide as the film can take it. 

Just as Donté inspired me to make a film, I hope my film will inspire people everywhere to create beauty where they recognize the need, so that future generations can inherit a cultural fabric made of poetry and empowerment, rather than hatred and despair.