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Boston man’s life righted by Shakespeare

May 5, 2013

BOSTON (AP) — The gun felt good in Antonio Stroud’s hands. He looked at the small, black object and knew he was prepared to use it, if necessary. In his mind, survival in his Roxbury neighborhood required a weapon.

“I felt invincible,” he said. “I felt powerful.”

But something happened to Stroud that year — as he began his march from age 16 to his 20s and through traps that often derail young black and Latino men in neighborhoods like his. He turned to God and became a changed man. And then he discovered something that felt equally powerful: Shakespeare.

It came in the form of a high school play and the discovery that Othello was black and, like Stroud, struggled with race and identity. Stroud auditioned and got the role. He dived into it, taking the script home and going over it again and again. There were words he didn’t get, meanings he couldn’t comprehend. But it still spoke to him.

An acting coach helped him after school. “We just kept doing it over and over,” said Stroud. “I was yelling. And then I stopped the rehearsals, and I said ‘Yo! I love this!’”

Stroud had teamed with professionals at the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which has a partnership with his high school, Boston Day and Evening Academy. The Somerville company saw promise in Stroud and tapped him not only for “Othello” in 2011, but for youth performances of “Macbeth” in summer 2012 and “Henry V” this year.

In Shakespeare, Stroud said, he found an answer to the pressures young men like him face, and the power within himself to overcome them. He understands the notion that great men in difficult circumstances must chart their own courses. Macbeth chose evil. But Henry V, the young king of England, grew from his wayward youth to a king who led an invasion of France against impossible odds.

“It was like therapy,” said Stroud.

Stroud is a child of the projects in Roxbury, his mother on welfare, his father long gone.

At Dearborn Middle School, Stroud was surfing couch to couch at night and spending his days hanging out with friends from his neighborhood, where violence is all too common.

“First it was a friendship, then it’s like, ‘Let’s make some money,’” Stroud recalled about his friends. “So once that began, I was like, ‘This is a gang.’”

Stealing cars and hustling were part of his world. Fighting teens from other neighborhoods came with the territory. He had cocaine in his pockets to sell and was heading up Blue Hill Avenue in summer 2009 when a teenager approached him and asked him where he was from. Recognizing the question as street code for naming his gang affiliation — and a potentially deadly challenge — Stroud ran to a friend’s house.

He felt intimidated and disrespected; according to street rules, he felt he had to retaliate or at least be prepared for the next time. He asked the friend for the gun.

That life is long gone now, along with the bravado he was cloaked in, the slouching, and the attitude. His ambition now is to rule the stage, through acting.

Still green and having much to learn, Stroud recently won a regional contest in which competitors recite an August Wilson monologue. He will compete for the national prize on Broadway in May. And he is preparing to audition for a main stage role in “Romeo and Juliet” for the Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

“He is absolutely for real,” said Michael Forden Walker, interim director of youth programs for the Actors’ Shakespeare Project. “He’s a pretty remarkable combination of confidence and humility. He’s a real natural for the stage.”

When he was first considering pursuing Shakespeare and acting, Stroud went to someone he considered a mentor, Michael McDonald.

“I was so excited,” Stroud said. “And he said, ‘Go for it.’ I had come to him with other things before. But I wanted to do this acting. I thought he was going think that this was just another one of my ideas. But I haven’t stopped.”

McDonald, a towering and steady father figure to Stroud, had watched the young man transform through the years, and he did not flinch when Stroud mentioned auditioning for “Othello.”

“It was so refreshing for me,” said McDonald. “Here was this young man who was not only excited about literature and about reading, but about Shakespeare — of all people.”

At first it was tough. Stroud was not getting “Othello” and had to read the play over many times.

During rehearsals he found himself screaming the lines and using a faux British accent. The acting coach told Stroud he didn’t believe him and urged him to use his own voice.

“He made me do it 15 times,” Stroud recalled. “He pushed me. It was intense.”

Stroud began to understand the story of “Othello,” and why such a powerful man could fall for a deception that cost him his beloved Desdemona and himself.

“He was a black man and he was honored,” said Stroud, pointing to Othello’s strengths.

But he was flawed. “I automatically identified with him. I am human. I make mistakes. I am misunderstood.”

When he played Macbeth, he recited lines while doing push-ups and walking around the house. He recruited his mother, who would sit on the sofa in the living room, sipping soda while Stroud strutted around her speaking in his crisp baritone.

“She would smile and say ‘you’re so cute,’” he recalled. “I had her play every character so I could get my lines.”

Aunts and cousins got used to seeing him walking in the apartment, talking to himself.

It’s all part of the process, but it’s also work that Stroud hopes will pay off.

“Throughout this process, I have grown more as an actor,” he said. “When I started, everything was difficult. Even the language, it was difficult to master. But it was fun to master.”

His favorite line: “All things be ready if our minds be so.”

That is from “Henry V.”

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