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St. Francis Prep graduate writes play on boro culture

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Mulling over his years as a student at St. Francis Prep in the early 1990s, playwright David Tianga says he’s struck by the fact that many of his wealthy classmates sought to emulate the darker side of the hip-hop culture prevalent in the lower-income neighborhoods where he lived.

“It really surprised me these kids were trying to be hard rock, trying to be down, trying to be like the kids where I grew up,” Tianga said.

The downward slide of one particular classmate became the inspiration for Tianga’s first play, “Confused Circuses,” which completed its debut Saturday after a successful six-show run at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in East Village. The self-financed and produced play also marks Tianga’s official debut as a playwright and sets the stage for more productions by the 28-year-old Queens native.

Tianga was born in Elmhurst and raised in Ecuador, Jackson Heights and Corona. Although his youth was neither graced by privilege nor steeped in squalor, he grew up in the rough environs that many of his private school peers knew only through MTV rap videos, Tianga said.

“It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either,” Tianga said. “There were certain years we had welfare checks. We heard gunshots at night.”

Tianga, whose parents are natives of Ecuador, said he has only met his father three times and that his mother, Marlene, worked “literally 20 years, seven days a week” as a seamstress to raise him and send him to school in Fresh Meadows.

It was there that English teacher Elizabeth Prouhaska first encouraged his interest in literature and where many of his ideas for “Circuses” were born, He graduated from St. Francis in 1992 and wrote the play about five years later.

“Circuses” tells the story of three friends struggling with identity, tragedy, pride and manhood --- and the choices that accompany such issues. Brett (J.R. Adduci), a white gangsta wannabe with a bad attitude and a 9mm gun, reunites for an evening of malt-liquor and babes with his prep school buddies, Jose (Armando Newbold) and Steve (Donald Rizzo), who was blinded two years ago in a fight initiated by Brett. As the evening unfolds, Brett’s macho posturing spirals out of control, forcing the trio to confront their past tragedy and the state of their current friendships.

When this confrontation leads to a second tragedy, Brett and Steve tumble into a dilemma full of confusion, fear and tough choices. Ultimately, the two must decide between “doing the right thing” and protecting their friendship, their pride and themselves.

“To me, the message of the play more than anything is to know thyself, to be true to thyself and to lead the right type of life,” said Adduci, whose portrayal of Brett is so convincing that it’s not surprising to learn he grew up in similar surroundings in Charlotte, N.C.

The 90-minute play carries numerous parallels to Tianga’s own experiences. The play is set in Queens during the height of the hip-hop pop culture explosion. Brett is raised by a hardworking mother and complains he’s only seen his father three times, while Jose and Steve wax poetic about some of Tianga’s favorite authors, such as James Joyce, and topics like yoga and Buddhism.

And although the characters in “Confused Circuses” are fictitious, Tianga modeled lead character Brett after a friend from St. Francis.

“My friend wasn’t really a good person in a sense. But he was really smart,” Tianga said. “He was just reaching in the wrong way. It’s a very thin line between right and wrong.”

Tianga said he ran into the real-life inspiration for Brett at their 10-year high school reunion one week before the play’s debut March 28. He was amazed -and delighted by how different his former friend has become.

“When you see the play, his character is not the nice person. But the play is about change, and he really has become that changed person,” Tianga said. “It was a reaffirmation of the play.”

“Confused Circuses” has been a surprise success. Tianga and co-producer/girlfriend Elise Perlman said they had expected to draw small groups of 16 to 20 to “Circuses,” their first production. Instead, crowds of up to 100 have filled the East Village venue.

Although patrons ranged in age, the majority appeared to be from Tianga’s generation.

“It’s really attracting a young crowd. People that age have not had a play before that speaks to their experience,” director Dan Friedman said. “They’ve never had their friends turned into characters.”

The realism of “Confused Circuses” may account for its unexpected success, according to its cast and crew.

Tianga surrounds his characters with the daily details of teenage life in the ‘90s, from the 40-ouncers they guzzle to the Cypress Hill tunes playing in the background. Tianga sculpted the dialogue in everyday street speak — he doesn’t constrain his characters to G-rated language or politically correct viewpoints.

“The way he captures the language and rhythms of the everyday speech of his peers is remarkable,” Friedman said.

Tianga said members of the audience “feel like they can relate.”

“I’ve had people come up after the show and tell me, ‘It’s real, yo! That, like, happens to me everyday,’” Tianga said.

Reach reporter Patricia Demchak by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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