Tyron Hoisten has never been homeless. The 2010 Ellet High School graduate grew up in a stable home and immersed himself in theater at his school, which became an outlet for his socially conscious playwriting.
He wrote his first play at age 15, an inspirational work called Jersey City Baptist Church in which a pastor takes in a group of homeless kids whose older sister had been trying to take care of them before they were evicted from their apartment. That play came out of a natural empathy the teen felt for the homeless.
“I’ve always been mature for my years,” he said. “I just have values. I don’t know. I’ve always cared about people.”
Hoisten, 21, has written seven plays now, three of them commissioned by Project RISE (Realizing Individual Strength through Education) of Akron Public Schools to raise awareness about the issues that homeless youths face. His latest commission is A Boy Like David, which will premiere Wednesday at Akron-Summit County Public Library’s auditorium downtown.
In all of his works, Hoisten aspires to be funny and offer a message. In his current play, young Louis has a mother who’s a drug addict and a father who’s an alcoholic. Louis, not getting what he needs from his parents emotionally, joins a gang and winds up in jail. He gets out at age 19, and with the help of a special English teacher, he gets through high school and goes on to college.
The wise people in Louis’ life who guide him include Dr. Whittington, played by Myron Lewis of Akron, who encourages him to stay in school; and bright and cheery Aunt Matilda (Myrna Johnson), who is most interested in mending his heart.
“Despite adversity, he overcomes,” Hoisten said of his character, who realizes he needs to change his life.
The character Louis, played by actor Devontae Ferguson, is like David in the biblical story of David and Goliath because he uses his determination and hope for a better life to overcome the giant, or the harsh realities he has endured, Hoisten said. Louis’ story is inspired by the real stories of local youth that Hoisten interviewed as a launching point for the play.
“Everything you hear [in the play] at some point actually happened to some young person,” the playwright said.
Hoisten, who works as a resident supervisor at Oriana House, has known since a young age that he wanted to write, direct and produce plays that would nurture and inspire people. Debra Manteghi, program manager at Project RISE and homeless education liaison for the Akron school district, has given him total creative license with his three commissioned plays, as long as they raise awareness about youth homelessness.
He stresses that his cast is racially diverse and his story about a young man who was lost and finds his way with the help of others is universal.
“This story and message is for everyone of all colors,” Hoisten said.
Hoisten, who said his strong faith in God shines through his work, doesn’t go for the easy laugh via profanity or sexual innuendo in his writing. He said it takes a lot more work and creativity to be funny while keeping it clean.
“Everything on TV is dumbed down … it comes from a negative place,” said Hoisten, who’s influenced by the comedy and moving messages of Bill Cosby and Tyler Perry.
He calls Perry’s stage productions, which he has seen live and on DVD “a kind of medicine for people who are hurt. … By the end, you had just been to church but you didn’t leave your living room.”
Hoisten, who studied theater at Georgia State for two years and is now a theater major at the University of Akron, wants to start a nonprofit theater in Akron where he can continue to develop uplifting plays that bring people together.
His first work for Project RISE that he created in 2010, Life’s Not Over, was based on interviews Hoisten conducted with homeless teens. Manteghi had been working with at-risk youth at Ellet High School and an administrator had told her that Hoisten was an insightful, creative student who might be able to help with Project RISE, which provides supplemental educational services to homeless children and youth. The program works with 800 to 900 students annually.
“I use a lot of art as a medium to provide literacy programming for our students and our parents both,” Manteghi said.
For Life’s Not Over, Hoisten talked to Project RISE students and focused on “unaccompanied youth,” those who aren’t out on the street but who have left their homes or have been turned out of their homes and move among different friends’ homes. The street term for these youths who have no parent guardianship is “couch surfing.”
Manteghi said Life’s Not Over captured underlying dietary, housing, school and health issues that accompany youth homelessness while at the same time making the issues believable, realistic and poignant.
The first Project RISE play was a success, with 300 attending the performance at the Main Library downtown.
“He actually surprised me with how much talent he had as a young person,” Manteghi said of Hoisten, who at age 18 wrote the script, designed the costumes and directed and acted in Life’s Not Over. “It made its point in a very poignant way and yet he made it light.”
Manteghi commissioned Hoisten’s work again in 2012 for the play An Inspiration of Hope, in which Hoisten continued his research on teen homelessness.
She said the young playwright is very invested in the social issues he explores in his plays, and she would like to one day see his work performed before wider audiences, including the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
A Boy Like David is loosely based on the story of a young man who recently graduated from the Akron Public Schools who realized he needed to turn his life around and was able to find support through his teachers.
“I think this is going to be the best play yet that he’s done for our program,” Manteghi said of Hoisten. “We’re lucky to have him right now.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.