Ridin Wit’ Joe Crack

joe crack

The president and founder of the Campaign for Change, Otis Lyons, is also the writer, director, producer and driving force behind, “Ridin’ Wit’ Joe Crack.”

It is a one night engagement, for now, tomorrow night, at 7pm at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC).

Our advice, Durham, do not miss this show.

This is the eighth year in production for “Ridin Wit’ Joe Crack.” Each year Lyons adds an element of showmanship and drama, raising the game and the excitement level. This year one hundred and twenty-five members of Hillside High School Marching Hornets band and dance team will be joining the cast of Joe Crack on-stage at the DPAC.

From what we have seen in rehearsals, Durham, do not miss this show…


Steve Collins is Joe Crack
All photos courtesy of Scenes from my Lunch Hour

The Clarion Content is fond of the maxim, truth trumps fiction. It is a mantra that Otis Lyons has lived so empirically that he needs no reminders of its veracity. Lyons was a talented student according to peers and acquaintances, but he was rolling with the wrong crowd. His role models were leaders in the streets, not the classroom. Like the tale he tells in Joe Crack, Lyons was a gang member who made his living selling drugs.1 As Joe notes, “Few live and survive life’s ride to tell this story.”


Otis Lyons aka Vegas Don (standing)
All photos courtesy of Scenes from my Lunch Hour

That is the sad truth for Lyons old crew, as the man they affectionately call Vegas Don looks back from the far side of forty, by some estimates as many as two-thirds of his high school “crew” may already be gone. Twenty out of thirty young men, waylaid, doing life behind bars or dead. Lyons is doing all he can to prevent this outcome for others in our community, Durham.


Left to right—Orishio Williams, Otis Lyons, Steve Collins, Monte C.
All photos courtesy of Scenes from my Lunch Hour

Lyons is not only spreading the message through the show itself, but literally picking up people along the way. For many members of Lyons cast, the story of Joe Crack is personal. Nick Alejandro, whose performance as Joe Crack’s running mate, T-Money, sends shivers down the spine says, “This [role] touches me because its so real.”

The mantra of truth trumping fiction rings authentically for cast members who have experienced much of the tale of life on the streets that Lyons and Joe Crack unfold.

Alejandro admits before the birth of his daughter Amaya, five, his life was headed down a dangerous path. He has been working with Otis Lyons and the Campaign for Change three years. Campaign for Change is Lyons non-profit organization dedicated to anti-gang, drug and crime education through youth empowerment, positive role modeling, goal-setting and outreach.

It is this same gripping reality that captures the minds of audience members young and old alike. Lyons narrative, his ability to show the truth of what is happening in the streets, opens eyes and moves hearts. The show incorporates live music, from modern hip-hop to R&B to Carmina Burana, spoken word, and a powerful personal message from a wheelchair bound former gang member2, it is a raucous wall of sound and an explosion of energy, with highly stylized blocking and elaborate choreography.

The vignettes depict scenarios that many young people face: peer pressure, street life, relationships, family interactions, girlfriend/boyfriend dynamics. They are deliberately archetypal without sounding corny or shying away from the real.

Lyons is a demanding taskmaster of his cast, often sounding like the basketball coach3 he is.

Drilling and honing the tiniest details, he demands, “Why is he sweating?” looking at Joe Crack, played by Steve Collins, who is literally dripping with the intensity of his effort.

Lyons answers his own question, “Because he is giving 110%. Why isn’t everyone else sweating?”

His voice reverberates and his actors dig deeper.

Lyons knows he is tough. It is because he is about the message. He states firmly and forthrightly, it is not about the song and dance for him. It is not the spotlight of the production that drives him. It is the message, “We are changing lives here. We can’t play. We don’t have the time.”

The earnestness of his intensity mixed with his record of success breathes fire. His people want to run through walls for him, uncomplainingly repeating takes, working as their own stage crew humping pieces of set and props on and off stage again and again.

Steve Collins, a NCCU theater graduate, playing the lead, Joe Crack, has no problem declaring it is so, “I gave up everything for this. My car. My place. I am sleeping on a friend’s couch. I am willing to forgo everything else.”

Collins is a veteran of professional theater who has been working with Lyons for several years. The cast is stocked with talent. Older actors like Orishio Williams and Johnny Foster stride the stage like the streets to create a seamless illusion of the world where Joe Crack dwells. Younger performers like Moriah Williams, Fred Jones, and Rahim Royal aka the DeFacto Thezpian, shimmy and strut with confidence and feel. Williams plays a “street girl” like she owns her character’s diary. Jones, as the comedic junkie, has touches of everything from Jimmy Walker to early Damon Wayans. Royal’s body control and movement in a non-speaking role is mesmerizing.

It would be impossible not to highlight the powerful, ebullient, vibrant performance by Jakayla Hart as Keisha, Joe Crack’s girlfriend. If there is one cast member whose passionate work rips at the fabric of your very being, it is Hart. She stands strong next to the virtuoso intensity of Collins’s Joe Crack and Alejandro’s T-Money. In a male dominated cast, about a male dominated milieu, Hart might not be able to save Joe Crack and T-Money from themselves, but the emotional strength and harmony of this triumvirate under Lyons direction will touch you.4


Jakayla Hart as Keisha
All photos courtesy of Scenes from my Lunch Hour

“Ridin’ wit’ Joe Crack’s” message is powerful and inspirational.

Among the memorable lines from the production:

“Real G’s don’t hurt the people they love.”

“Visiting a living corpse behind steel bars.”

“The thin line between walking it, talking it and living it. Giving it or just pretending it’s all right.”


Steve Collins as Joe Crack and Jakayla Hart as Keisha
All photos courtesy of Scenes from my Lunch Hour


Steve Collins as Joe Crack and Jakayla Hart as Keisha
All photos courtesy of Scenes from my Lunch Hour

Durham, you do not want to miss this show.

Originally published January 5th, 2012.

Notes
1Read Otis Lyons’s Durham story of poverty, violence, high school, family, gangs, prison, and ultimately redemption here.

2Lyons often uses former gang members as speakers. In this case, it is a personal family friend, Mike Spain. Mr. Spain, a wheelchair bound casualty of gang violence, tells it like it is. He warns young audience members, “You don’t have to end up this way. You have a choice. I have to have help to take my pants off. I might spend twelve hours or two days waiting for someone to come by my house to get me, to go anywhere.”

3Word is Lyons, aka, Vegas Don coaches the Carolina Don’s youth basketball team in his spare time.

4We defy you to go and not cry. This, too, is Durham. Too ignore the reality of it is a moral failure.

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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