Sesame Street writers have been known since the late sixties for their ability to introduce a preschool aged audience to some pretty heavy topics. For William Electric Black, a former writer for the acclaimed show, teaching young children about gun violence through art feels like just another day on the job. While Electric is well known around New York’s East Village experimental theater circuit, he is now gaining popularity among a new audience of educators and law enforcers.
As described by NPR News, Electric’s Philosophy on teaching tough topics is, “go in, and go early.” “You need to start when they’re 3 and 4 because by the time they’re in middle school, they’re thinking about a gun or ‘I gotta get a gun to protect myself from the other kids that have guns,’” said Electric. “This is the time to get them to see there’s another way.”
In East Harlem, a pilot program is emerging launched by Electric, NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Community Partnerships Chauncey Parker, and Kristy De La Cruz, superintendent of Community School District 4. De La Cruz shared that Electric’s time spent working on Sesame Street in addition to his contributions to the production of educational videos make him the perfect partner in this venture.
“Mr. William Electric Black has a proven track record with his advocacy for public health and wellness,” she said. “He’s someone who is deeply committed to serving the community. And it’s not just like he’s coming in with [his own] ideas. He wants to co-create lessons in collaboration with the community.”
Electric felt inspired after viewing a televised address by President Biden on mass shootings. “The president said, ‘Do something,” he told NPR. “ That’s me. I’m devastated by what’s happening but you can’t let that choke you and do nothing.” In 2013, after reports of back to back inner city shootings, the artist pledged to write a series of plays about gun violence. He ultimately ended up with five of what he calls “Gunplays.”
The first play introduced by Electric was “Welcome Home, Sunny T,” the story of an Afghan vet who gets killed on the way to his welcome home party. Similarly, “When Black Boys Die” was about a high school athlete who is killed by gun violence. While both productions were well received, “The Faculty Room” became the critic and crowd favorite. In the play, the students and faculty of James Baldwin High School are placed on lockdown after a girl on the basketball team brings a gun to school.
After a New York Times reviewer questioned whether or not theater can have the power to reduce gun violence. Answers to this may vary depending upon who you ask, but for Electric, it’s an easy yes.