Romeo is Bleeding makes clear that life in Richmond, California is dire, that options are limited. However, life here also produces poetry.
"Is love a tender thing? it is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn."
-- Romeo, Romeo and Juliet
"Richmond is on fire and Lord knows, we all burning."
-- Donté Clark
"Damn, this is my life, this is what's going on in my neighborhood right now." Donté Clark says he resisted reading Romeo and Juliet when a teacher first suggested it. As he understood it, a play by William Shakespeare couldn't be more distant from his own experience in the Bay Area today, specifically, in the inner city area of Richmond. But on reading the play, with an eye to transforming it for performance in his neighborhood, Donté came to see the play and his life differently.
This is the short version of what happens in Romeo is Bleeding, which follows the process of that transformation over six months. More compellingly, the documentary -- screening at the DocYard on 2 November -- explores and illustrates that transformation with a poetry of its own. Low angles reveal wide urban skies, mobile frames create energy and reflect intense dedication. Alternating between images of Donté and other performers on stages and in rehearsals, it includes as well scenes of the students at home and on the streets, where their evolving, intricate art helps to provide structure and hope.
Donté's primary haven is Raw Talent, a collaborative that creates a "safe space for self-expression". Working as an artistic director, along with his mentor and former English teacher Molly Raynor and his student and spiritual brother Deandre Evans, he trains his students to communicate their frustrations and fears in order to give them shape. The film opens with exercises that demonstrate the fear and violence with which they live daily, and open the path to mutual support and recovery.
Apart from this haven, and the community they mean to form, the young artists' environment is frequently frightening and hostile. Interviews with neighborhood safety officers indicate that shootings occur regularly, gang members taking out rivals for reasons they might not even fully understand. "We got a gang problem," announces one police officer, driving the camera crew past street corners marked by makeshift memorials.
Revenge might seem to provide a brief distraction from grief and loss. Donté confesses he feels the inclination when he loses a close friend, even as he recognizes himself as a product of a system. He also realizes that revenge only creates more loss, more desire for more revenge. "That's trauma," says neighborhood safety officer Sam Vaughan, "I got some pain associated with you and I'm angry as hell and I don't even know why, only that you from over there."
"We ain't fighting over drugs and money," Donté adds. "It's about, 'I'm hurting and I'm gonna hurt you back.'" Reframing the cycle is imperative. "The violence is not going to stop," says Donté, "That's beyond flesh, it's spiritual."
It's also historical. The film notes some disagreements as to when and how the conflict started between neighborhoods in North Richmond and Central Richmond (also known as the Deep C), whether it began in 2002, or dates back to the '60s, as well as how it's initiated, prolonged, and complicated by economic realities. One rehearsal is interrupted by explosions and thick black smoke emerging from the Richmond refinery, occasioning the story of how the facility served as a marker for the neighborhood, where, says security guard Brady Stewart, "all the bad things happen".
As Donté travels from Central to work in Richmond, he knows that each day he might become a target, only because he's "from over there". Still, he means to forge a connection between the communities, to reveal their similar needs and interests, to make art. To this end, he works with D'Niese Robinson, co-creator for the adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, titled "Te's Harmony". She plays Harmony and Donté plays Te, each writing their own part.
She draws from her own experience too, specifically her relationship with her father. "I feel like that poem really came from like a real place," she explains, "Something I'd like to say my real dad." D'Niese and other girls from Richmond lament the labels attached to them, that they're "down girls", "down for dudes", submissive or rough, lazy or lacking ambition.
"I feel like people have stereotyped us so much, so how can you love something that's broken and doesn't want to be loved?" asks D'Niese. No one here fits a stereotype, not only when they speak, but also in their representations: the film shows girls and boys in their varied elements, with each other, on stages, walking with purpose -- and in dense golden light -- on the railroad tracks that have traditionally separated the neighborhoods.
Romeo is Bleeding makes clear that life in Richmond is dire, that options are limited. However,, life here also produces poetry.