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24 Sep 2013

Gang Member turned Playwright Takes on Toronto’s Gun Violence – On Stage

This doesn’t look like the face of a former gang member does it? Cheryl Nembhard left that life behind decades ago but relives it almost daily

through the news headlines and through the community work she does with her Christian Theatre company Exousia Media Group.

In 2010 she mounted The Ultimate Sacrifice; the first Canadian Gospel musical production on a Mirvish stage at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre to almost nightly sold out audiences. And now she’s bringing it back for a third and final run on November 2, 2013 at Global Kingdom Ministries.

“I was first inspired to write the play in Easter 2009 in response to the Summer of the Gun, a few years earlier. That was kind of the final straw for me. And now, I can’t think of a better time to bring it back because to me... the gun violence has only gotten worse,” says Nembhard.

The Ultimate Sacrifice is set in modern day and follows Elijah Xavier aka “X” who is the leader of a gang called The Code. He ends up in jail and during his stint he turns his life around and converts to Christianity. Upon release, he goes right back to the heart of his community and goes up against the new leader of his former gang to try and change things from the bottom up. He finds out that not everyone is interested in change.

It’s a story of redemption that echoes loudly for Cheryl Nembhard. She never found herself in jail but suffered more of a mental prison. After being sexually molested by a Sunday School teacher from age 5 to 12; and being sexually assaulted at age 16 by neighborhood thugs who broke into her home, Cheryl’s life’s spiralled quickly to a dark place.

“I was so emotionally damaged and very angry, and I joined a gang. I spent years living on and off the streets, on drugs and committing a lot of violent acts. I had three abortions before I could even legally drink,” says Cheryl.

A street evangelist helped turn Cheryl’s life around. It wasn’t easy since she was already so distrustful of the Church because of her sexual molester. “I hated God and Church with a passion,” says Cheryl, who is now an ordained minister. “This community worker invited me to his church. I had drug money in my pocket and was on my way to a club. I had no intention of staying. But these people looked right past all that, and told me things I had never heard; that I was loved. For the first time, I felt part of a family.”

That is the same feeling that Cheryl is dedicated to giving back to kids in her community with Exousia Media Group. With 63 members, since its inception, it’s a place where everyone belongs, no matter what they’ve been through. The lead actor in The Ultimate Sacrifice Julian Hyacinth knows all too well the subject matter of street life and fatherlessness. His father was murdered when he was 3 years old and he has an incredible story of overcoming his own participation in gang violence. Many of the actors in EMG productions have come from similar backgrounds and bring those realities to the stage.

For Cheryl, that is the best way to help change the gun violence Toronto’s urban communities are living in fear of. “The last time we staged The Ultimate Sacrifice we invited prison inmates into the audience. And I saw these tough criminals with their workers, crying because they were touched after watching the story. They get it. We don’t do entertainment, what we do is more like drama therapy,” says Cheryl.

A group of community organizations in London, battling similar problems as Toronto with gun violence, stumbled upon some EMG video clips online and invited the entire cast and crew to perform The Ultimate Sacrifice in the UK. The group will be there from October 3 to 17 performing in churches at night and ministering to prison inmates, attending youth symposiums and visiting homeless shelters during the day.  “It’s not about the applause for us,” says Cheryl. “We step off the stage, and that’s when the real work begins.”

ABOUT EMG

Exousia Media Group was founded three years ago and has become known for using arts to address social issues in the community. The first production, The Ultimate Sacrifice focuses on gang violence; My Brother’s Keeper highlighted sexual molestation and the group home system; and The Son, our first short film is about fatherlessness. The Son is currently on the film festival circuit and has earned 14 nominations and captured 5 awards. Our next theatrical production is called Touched and is about the abuses women suffer, within faith communities. It is scheduled for release spring 2014.

 

 

 

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