AUSTIN (KXAN) — On a recent Sunday, kids and their parents packed into the Scottish Rite Theater in Austin to watch a production of the new play “Rap Unzel,” about a boy named Reggie Unzel trying to settle into a new town with his mom and his lyrics.
The play, featuring music from Austin musician SaulPaul, is the work of Jeremy Rashad Brown, a local writer who was encouraged to write something specifically for Black History Month.
“You will see an imitation and a loose adaption of my life growing up,” Brown told KXAN at the Sunday performance.
Reggie is a happy kid who liked to sing, rap and read and write poetry, which earns him the nickname “Rap” from a new friend. Three other kids in his new town make fun of him for his joy, and Reggie’s mother, now a single mom after the death of her husband, reacts the only way she knows how.
“All she knows how to do in order to protect her son now by herself is to just keep him tucked away in his room and keep his joy from being corrupted,” Brown said.
The parallels between the play and the fairy tale Rapunzel that it borrows from are evident, but the similarities between Reggie’s life and Brown’s childhood also drive the story.
Bullied from the time he started school to around 7th grade, Brown said he, too, was a happy kid, always smiling and talking to other children. To his classmates, he was different, and his mom became protective. “Not overly-protective, but she was just vigilant.”
Brown took refuge in writing. In fact, some of the poetry Reggie reads in the play is based on the journal the writer kept as a teenager, something he notes was a method of self-care before that term rose to prominence.
The kids in the audience connect with Reggie.
“Sometimes I have some friends that, they call me names,” Aenea Levy said after the performance. “It makes me feel really bad.”
Levy’s mom watched the play with her and said she connected with the themes, too. “It’s sad that that’s still going on,” Anitra Abdullah-Levy said, “but I like that there’s more resources, I think, for kids now to learn how to deal with it than when I was growing up.”
Although it’s geared toward children, adults can apply the lessons to their lives as well. William Lyons, a Brown’s friend who saw the play for the first time Sunday, said it reinforced in him the idea that he should be vocal when he disagrees with something he’s seeing or experiencing.
“I know I need to say something,” Lyons said. “I need to speak up, because my ideas are important, too, and bring value to the conversation.”
Brown sees his work as 1 percent play, 99 percent how-to. “Or,” he said, “one way of how to maneuver through this world when it’s not as accepting or appreciative of your uniqueness.”
He’s honored that kids and adults are connecting with his characters and the message, and he hopes everyone is able to apply it to their lives, “’cause we need it,” he said.
The play runs twice daily on Saturdays and Sundays through the end of February. Tickets can be found here.
Brown plans to take the play to Houston next, and hopes to set up performances in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles as well. He’s also developing the script into a screenplay to spread the message further.