Yo, Put the Gun Down, a hip-hop symphony musical using spoken word and music to transform the grief of gun violence into a catalyst for change, is set to return this April in East Germantown. 

This is the musical’s second iteration, an artistic project from Chew and Chelten CDC community leader and playwright Douglas Rucker. Rucker said the musical's first run in 2021 brought out a talented cast and strong vision. Still, the pandemic and a lack of some components for full production, including string instruments and dance, held back some of the musical’s potential. 

This time, Rucker has more directing support and a more disciplined approach. He says the energy level is the same, and the talents are brilliant again. He also has a more solidified partnership with La Salle University as he presents this production. 

“This partnership is beyond just this play. It is a community partnership, and I'm the only community development CDC in that area. And the partnership with them is more personal with me as executive director,” says Rucker. La Salle’s communications department is providing students working in their public relations program to help with the outreach for the play. He’s also been working with their non-profit center to learn skills and gain knowledge to support his work in the Chew and Chelten CDC.

He credits La Salle’s president, Daniel J. Allen, and his team for helping in supporting their community work after the death of 12-year-old Laron “LJ” Williams last summer on East Locust Street. Rucker wrote the original play as his response to the gun violence he has seen happening through the years around the Chew and Chelten Avenue area. Rucker had already planned on continuing his vision of creating a community center for youth on the Chew Avenue corridor. He now plans to give the youth center Williams’ namesake and will use any proceeds from the musical toward fundraising for the building. 

The musical mixes rap, spoken word, poetry, and other musical numbers. It was written and created by Douglas Rucker and composed by Jon Savant, and Jon Graves will now direct this production. The cast consists of folks from Germantown and all over Philly, many of whom are from areas that have been most affected by gun violence. 

Rucker has again brought on Savant, who worked on the first version of the show with him, for musical direction. Savant is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who uses music to aid healing in his work in and out of his full-time job as a physician assistant. He is also working with Jon Graves, owner of Heres2CoolStuff and JGP Productions, as the director for the musical. Despite their busy schedules, both Savant and Graves felt the importance of the project and the passion behind Rucker’s vision. 

“I think many of the people that have been involved, and myself included, have been impacted by the gun violence epidemic, both personally and professionally. And I've always believed in the power of music, to heal, to give voice to things that are difficult to say, to inspire change and to unite communities,” said Savant. 

“And it is Douglas's passion for the project that has been the legs that have kept us moving. He's very persistent, as Jon Graves mentioned. He's tenacious, and his passion for the project is infectious.”

Graves was brought on for this new version of the musical, and although he is the busiest he’s ever been with his own musical and theatrical projects, he found a way to fit it into his schedule. He knows this kind of project very well, and most of the projects he's been asked to work on are about healing and resilience from gun violence.

“What theater does, as I imagine other forms of art does… it puts audiences in a vulnerable position to hear. And that vulnerability also gives them permission to feel. And in a safe space, what happens when you hear and feel? It causes a reaction and an action,” says Graves.

Graves knows this is an emotional journey and vision from Mr. Rucker, and he hopes to use the vulnerability that theater can create to give all the emotions a face, a place “to give people the permission to feel, to heal, to speak.”

RA Certified, a hip-hop artist and movie director from Germantown, wrote all the raps and poetry for the play. He was in the original version of the musical and is back again to perform many of the songs. He’s been into the arts since he was a child and had seen Rucker around the neighborhood for years. When he saw the original casting call for the musical, he introduced himself and has been building with them ever since. He meshed well with Jon Savant; together, they worked on the main song for the musical. The main concept of the musical is really what drives him, though. 

“The arts basically kept me alive. I lost a lot of loved ones to the gun violence in the streets. Countless. I have tattoos all over my body of loved ones that I lost to gun violence … it's definitely like a mission of mine to utilize the art where it's needed. So it was kind of like, I need to do this. It was more than just I want to be a part of another performance. It was more so like, this is something potent. This is something that everyone needs. And, yeah, I would love to tie my name to something like that,” said RA.

For his part, Rucker can’t wait to see the whole production come together. “I just see that this is a wonderful production, and I know the impact that it's going to have on the audience. Because our job is to cause the audience, whether victim or victimizer, the families, the mothers, the fathers, the children, especially the young adults, that they may come away with a change of mind and heart as to the way they conduct their daily business. That this may touch them and say, hey, man, I can do something else. Just changing the way that they think. And that's what the whole gist is, especially in the dialogue, it's about changing.”

Yo, Put the Gun Down Musical will be at the Dan Rodden Theater at La Salle University on Monday, April 15, 2024, at 7:00 p.m. You can learn more information and buy tickets here.