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'City' Is Full of Self-Discovery for Teens

Television: An acclaimed documentary shows the efforts of a group that pulls kids together with annual musicals.

May 19, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years ago, Shanara McKeever was a high school junior living in a poor area of Washington, D.C. The young African American suffered from low self-esteem and was consumed with self-doubts. Angry and bitter that her father was never around, McKeever had a hard time opening up to others.

Now, McKeever's a junior English major at a private Virginia college. She aspires to write biographies and is an active participant in her school's theater program.

McKeever's amazing voyage of self-discovery is chronicled in the acclaimed 1998 documentary "City at Peace," which premieres Thursday on HBO. Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman are executive producers of the 90-minute project that was four years in the making.

"City at Peace" chronicles the efforts of the Washington-based organization of the same name, which each year chooses teenagers from all walks of life and experiences to create an original musical based on their lives. In the film, the 60 teens are first polarized by their fears, prejudices and misconceptions.

A telling exercise opens the film as the camera pans the room to find all the black youths clustered together and all the white youths on the other side of the room.

But as they gather for rehearsals in a studio for the performing arts in northeast Washington every Saturday for a year, they learn that they have a lot more in common than they first thought and are able to overcome their differences to create a powerful piece of theater.

"City at Peace," which was produced and directed by the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning team of Christopher and Susan Koch ("Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial"), focuses on the lives of some of the participants and follows them beyond their year with City at Peace.

Besides Shanara, there's Cindy, a high school dropout who sold drugs on the street; Mike, an aspiring writer who is alienated from his stepfather; Kim, a choir member with a young child; D'Angelo, an angry young man who has spent time in jail for robbery and whose younger brother was murdered; Pam, an open-minded teen with a gay HIV-positive brother; and Junior, a talented dancer who was once arrested for assaulting a teacher.

McKeever, who is still close to most of the group, acknowledges if she hadn't been involved in the project she doubts she would have made it to college. "I wouldn't be able to talk to people," she explains.

Director Susan Koch became interested in doing a documentary on City at Peace, which was founded in the early '80s, after watching one of the musicals and becoming friendly with its musical director and one of its founders, gospel musician and composer Rickey Payton, who told Koch that the musical was just "the icing on the cake."

"He said [what is really remarkable] is what they go through to get to that point," Koch says. "When auditions were starting for a new project, he let me know and I was hooked."

Koch had no idea what would evolve over the next year. "What I did know when I went was that it was a unique environment. Washington is a very segregated community and to walk into this room and see all of these young people from very different backgrounds really intrigued me.

"I thought, 'How are they ever going to come together to be able to put together a production?' Then I realized it provided me with an opportunity to look at a group of young people who were very different but not in an artificial way. They were coming together on their own. I wasn't creating that."

The documentary doesn't sugarcoat the teens' troubled and often deadly lives as Koch's cameras travel to their homes and neighborhoods. During the course of the year, both D'Angelo and Payton's teenage son are shot.

Still, producer Chris Koch points out that he and his wife wanted "City at Peace" to have a positive message. "We are kind of fighting this tendency to [show] negative and violent stuff," he says.

The teens, says Susan Koch, found the cameras liberating. "They were so honest," she says. The kids were also thrilled that somebody wanted to hear their stories. "They loved that aspect of it," she says.

Executive producer Corman believes the lesson to be taken from "City at Peace" is that this sort of initiative may help avert incidents like the recent Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colo., in which two students went on a murderous and ultimately suicidal rampage.

"In schools today, so much has to do with bias, with cliques and people feeling left out," Corman says.

"It has been said over and over again that those kids [at Columbine] were outcasts. When you hear about some kid getting involved [in violent acts] it is because they were outcasts and bullied and made to feel so totally inferior. It is important to teach [tolerance for differences] in kindergarten. We are not all alike. We have to respect our differences."

City at Peace, adds McKeever, is specifically designed to figure out what each person has in common with another.

"I think if there was a City at Peace at Columbine maybe it wouldn't have been so much about 'I'm alone' and more about 'How can I relate to this other person?' " she says.

Ultimately, McKeever hopes viewers realize it is not really City at Peace that is extraordinary. "It is the people who make it extraordinary," she says. "I have never been involved with something before or after which is just about learning about people."

*

* "City at Peace" shows Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on HBO. It repeats Sunday at 4 p.m. and at various times throughout May and June.

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