‘bounce,’ a basketball opera tackling america’s gun problem

i-D meets the cast of the youth-led theater production touring the basketball courts of the US with a message of nonviolence — and a score cowritten by Ansel Elgort.

by Kristin Huggins
28 June 2016, 3:20pm

Basketballs and sneaker soles drum the court floor as someone plays showy jazz tunes on a keyboard. Another flexes her vocal chords, floating through a scale with the ease of Adele. Tonight is the first performance of Bounce, a theatrical marriage of basketball and opera produced by Ardea Arts, a music-theater production firm targeting non-traditional audiences. For Bounce, it gathered a team of young artists, legendary professionals, including community leaders from diverse backgrounds, and New York teens determined to rise above difficult circumstances. Also involved is DJ Ansolo, otherwise known as actor Ansel Elgort. His mother, Grethe Holby Barrett, is the director, so he offered to write portions of the soundtrack.

The project is uniquely significant to all of the cast and crew. Each gladly rode on buses for over an hour to East Flatbush, Brooklyn — past the end of the city's subway lines — to participate in the performances. Plus, it's a non-profit endeavor. Ardea Arts' producer, Gloria Parker, reminds me, "We're underfunded and understaffed and we still rode out here from way in the morning, setting up."

Besides presenting a new art form — a mix of athletics, theater, and music on an interactive stage (a real court where kids play basketball) — this team has gathered to spread awareness of gun violence. On average, 200 Americans are hit by bullets each day and 30 are killed. Bounce smartly whittles this tragedy down to its simplest solution: making the right choice.

The opera is based loosely on the Greek myth of Icarus but unfolds in a contemporary setting: it follows a high school basketball player named Flight as he works towards athletic greatness while battling envious home-team players and opposing squads. Somehow, in the process, Flight is shot. The rival teams are played by kids from different high schools and organizations. Members of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes (G-MACC), a non-profit that pulls youth out of street gangs, make up Flight's team, while students from the Business of Sports School in Manhattan play his adversaries. The shows in East Flatbush are the first of several performances expected to happen on courts like this one across the States, each spreading awareness of the debilitating effects of gun violence.

The cast and crew of Bounce had a lot to say about opera, hoop dreams, gun violence, and more.

How did you get involved with Bounce?
"They held auditions at my school and I tried out, and Miss Gloria and Miss Grethe liked me." — Jacob Johnson, actor, 17

"My high school teacher contacted me. I played ball all my life so it made sense." — Aaron Ramsey, actor, 20

What was your favorite thing about being part of this team?
"A high school kid dropped out because his brother was shot. A couple of the kids attend G-MACC after school. It's to fight gang violence and get kids out of gangs. There's this room and no one can get in or out — for safety [until a guardian can escort them home to ensure no communication with gang members]….It's humbling to meet people different from yourself, and I'd like to think this experience helped me as much as everyone else." — Maria Sebaszo, production intern, 21

"We're all very diverse, like me: I'm a jazz singer and a songwriter, I'm Brazilian and Norwegian." — Maria Charlotte Dos Santos, actor, 22

"Grethe [Barrett Holby, the director] lets them [the young cast] switch up words and stuff so it's how young people really talk to each other." — Jonathan Kirkland, lead actor, 28

What parts of the message do you identify with personally?
"The idea of hoop dreams. I guess it's more common among African Americans, and it serves that community. This idea that you could be good enough for the NBA but something like this could stop you." — Aaron

"It's not about me but I see it a lot. People always love the greats of any artform — like basketball or theater — but they forget there are loads of other people just as good that weren't allowed to shine because something got in the way, like this." — Curtis Williams, actor 21

"I moved here from Liberia in 2007 and there, we had a civil war. People were killed by guns, yes, but also by envy and greed. It's so much pain for nothing." — Jacob

Who do want to come out and see Bounce?
"I think gun violence is an important topic for everybody. And with the shooting that happened a week ago, right around here [a child from an outside community shot five kids in an area playground because one may have stolen his designer backpack] brought this to full focus…the solution has to be colorblind. It's not just African-American or black because look at Orlando. It could happen to anyone." — Ashley Jackson, actor, 24

What makes Bounce special?
"This is everything. Growing up in Southfield, Michigan, I played basketball from the age of three. My father is a basketball coach and my mother is a Juilliard-trained opera singer. This brings together the two things I love most." — Jonathan

"It brings in not only classical aspects — I was trained as an opera singer — but also theater. And you hear pop, rap, and some EDM. I think it's good to bring in younger people." — Ashley

Why mix basketball with opera?
"Basketball players are also entertainers. You want to cater to the crowd. Look at guys like Stephen Curry." — Jonathan

"They both have their own worlds. I talked to kids out here who've never even been to the opera because they never go into the city." — Troy Press, announcer, 23

After a month with this production, you've had time to think. How would you solve gun violence?
"I definitely think it's the gun laws and the money behind the whole industry." — Maria Charlotte

"Awareness. New York is a big city and there are people in Central Park West and people in the Bronx, and this affects all of them." — Maria

"You need a firm foundation. My home situation was very strong, especially with my mother and father. I dealt with so much moving around after Hurricane Katrina but I have a huge family that's essentially a community invested in me, in my wellbeing." — Curtis

What's your goal for after Bounce?
"I'm going to be on Broadway." — Jacob



Text Kristin Huggins
Photography Sophie Elgort

New York
ansel elgort
ardea arts
grethe holby barrett