Corner 4am and Cuba

BATS Theatre, Wellington

12/04/2007 - 21/04/2007

Production Details

Produced and directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson
Compiled and devised by The Wheelbarrow Group

Presented by The Wheelbarrow Group

In less than eight minutes a life was taken.

With his purple hair, green fingernails and daring playfulness schoolboy Jeff added his own colour to the Cuba Street milieu. Early on the morning of the 8th of May 1999, he was found beaten and close to death in a nearby side street. He died the next day. The boot prints of his two killers remained on his scalp. Jeff was 14 years old.

Some say he died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some say he died because he was on drugs.
Some say he died because he was gay.

The Wheelbarrow Group is devising this shocking part of our local history to explore three things.

One: The effect this boy’s violent murder had on the vibrant Cuba community. Is hate and intolerance of the nonconforming members of our society still a thing of the past?

Two: The facts, fictions, hearsays and myths that were presented by the media and ‘friends’. The damage these poisonous rumours caused – who holds social responsibility?

Three: It took eight minutes for Jeff to disappear from the nearby Shell Station until he was found – what happened in those eight minutes?

Corner of 4am and Cuba promises to be a moving, thought provoking and theatrically innovative evening out.

Warning: Violent content may offend

Devised and performed by:
Jean Copland, Romy Hooper, Stuart Pedley, Melissa Philips, Jonny Potts, Luis Portillo, Jaki Trolove and Andrew Waterson

Lighting design: Jen Lal
Musical direction: Stewart Pedley

Theatre ,

1 hr 15 min, no interval

Refreshing, relevant theatre

Review by Lynn Freeman 18th Apr 2007

Portraying a relatively recent ‘real life’ murder on stage is a gutsy thing to do, more so when it’s the beating to death of a 14 year old for nothing more than being a little different and in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In May 1999 two men in their 20s beat purple-haired Jeff to death – their account of what happened that morning and two imagined alternatives, all of them chilling, are portrayed in the production without a drop of blood or even a body.

We see Jeff, never on stage, but through the eyes of the police, the accused, Jeff’s school friends, eyewitnesses to the murder, and through the Cuba Street regulars.  In terms of the impact of the murder, that’s most movingly portrayed by the busy police officer who refused to give Jeff a lift home, and who keeps seeking reassurances that they weren’t to blame for what happened afterwards.

Court records, newspaper headlines, interviews carried out by Neilson, are all thrown into the mix in what he describes as a ‘compiled’ theatre work, and that’s a good description.  The actors are also very much part of that creative process and that’s reflected in their performances on stage. This is basic storytelling – no external sound, only a few recycled rubbish bins as props, it’s all on the actors and the script to carry it. The play has moments of extreme emotional intensity, exhausting for actor and audience.

Neilson is an adventurous director, determined to take the audience out of its comfort zone too, starting by having us stand outside to watch an event en route to the warmth of the theatre – a neat idea but it should only take a couple of minutes not 10.  Then we have to wait to take a seat, briefly becoming part of the action, a neat touch. 

It’s refreshing to see theatre that’s relevant and topical – given the bewilderment in our society over young people killing each other in assaults and in cars. 

This production is brave and memorable, but somehow we never get to make a strong emotional connection with Jeff, and the Cuba Street characters’ stories tend to fall flat, coming as they do in between the powerful murder scenes.


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Sensitive but shocking

Review by Kate Blackhurst 15th Apr 2007

In this powerful and moving piece of drama presented by the Wheelbarrow Group, Ronald Trifero Nelson directs a cast of eight young people to explore a seemingly pointless death and offer theatre as therapy. It contains violent content that may offend, and will certainly disturb, and notices in the foyer recommend counselling services to those who want to talk about issues raised by the performance.

In a true and horrific incident, a 14-year-old boy called Jeff was beaten to death on a side street in central Wellington early on the morning of 8th May 1999. The boot prints of his two assailants, Jason Meads and Steven Smith, were imprinted on his scalp. With his purple hair, green fingernails and facial piercings, perhaps Jeff was killed because he was gay, because he was on drugs or simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By piecing together witness statements, police interviews and newspaper reports, the company attempts to uncover what happened that night. Much of the dialogue in the play derives from the actual words of the characters, such as the speeches of the principal of Wellington High School in which she informs her students she is proud of the way they handle their grief and the media. She says that all will grieve in their own way, and this play works through the stages of grief. There were tears on opening night as many of the audience members will have known this young man.

Everyone in the cast wears t-shirts and dark trousers, which allows them to play interchangeable roles. Characters of buskers, prostitutes, bartenders, police officers, tourists, and the milieu of people who frequent the town centre in the early hours are fleshed out, but no one actor plays the victim. There are three portrayals of the actions of Meads and Smith, based on interviews, anecdotal evidence, instinct, and their own account.

The mood ranges from affecting to horrifying throughout the play. A group of school friends sit together reminiscing about the good times with Jeff. As they recall special thoughts and share memories and intimate moments, it is a beautiful celebration of a creative life. The re-enactment of the killers laughing about what they’d done, calling the boy a faggot and saying they had never seen anyone bleeding out of the places he’d bled out of, is repulsive. So too is a witness recounting how the victim tried to stand but couldn’t and fell to his and knees, making a sound like a possum. The sound of bare feet stomping on the stage, knowing they represent Doc Martens kicking a body to death, is sickeningly graphic despite its minimalism, and is hard to cope with.

The play isn’t afraid to ask questions about blame and responsibility. There are many factors – the police who could have taken him home; the friends who left him behind; the bartenders who serve alcohol to minors; but above all, a society that seeks to destroy what it doesn’t understand. The priest at the funeral is accused of lecturing against drugs as though they were the cause of the death, when it was actually brutality. Early on we are asked to question our attitude to spiders – we kill them because we are bigger than them, but also because we are afraid of them. Is this a metaphor for the death of a flamboyant teenager who “expected to walk confidently into the future”?

There is a smattering of humour but a lot more anger and hate. The play even touches on the provocative aspect of the appeal of death with everyone wanting to claim association and gain reflective allure. It is confrontational from the beginning and risks alienating the audience by making them stand in a cold alleyway watching someone spraying graffiti on a wall, before leaving them to follow indoors and stranding them awkwardly on the stage, preventing them from sitting until directed.

The play is very local and there are many references which provoke knowing laughter, but would not work in a wider context. At one point, the Cuba Street fountain is discussed as a metaphor. It was meant to be a clock but it never worked, and now its dysfunctional eccentricity holds iconic status among the slightly surreal, melting pot of Cuba Street.

The plain set with props of wheelie bins and plastic recycling bins works well. The bins are used as everything from public bars and park benches to cars and a witness stand. The recycle motif suggests that something good can come out of this. If one person is encouraged to realise that they are not six foot tall and bullet-proof and to stay safe and look after their mates, then the healing process will be worth it.

Another highlight is the music – several songs were created especially for the show and are written and performed beautifully by Stewart Pedley and Romy Hooper. All of the actors do a splendid job of presenting this sensitive but shocking piece of theatre. They looked exhausted and emotional at the curtain call. Corner of 4am and Cuba must be a cathartic experience for all involved in its production.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Theatrical memorial to a murdered teen

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 14th Apr 2007

Corner 4am & Cuba is a memorial to a 14 year-old boy, Jeff Whittington, who was murdered in Inverlochy Place, near Aro St in 1999.  The director of this hour-long piece of collaborative theatre has said Jeff’s brutal murder just needs to be remembered.

The nine people who devised this play have culled newspapers and court reports, interviewed friends and relatives, and used anecdotal evidence and their own instincts to create a sort of theatrical collage that seeks to "explore fundamental questions about Jeff’s murder and the effect it had on the community around Cuba Street."

Once an overlong and ineffective preface to the play, which takes place in the passageway beside Bats Theatre, is over, the audience is led into the theatre through the side door, where it soon finds itself in a school assembly being addressed by the Principal announcing the death of Jeff.

From then on scenes, few lasting more than three or four minutes, take us back and forth from the trial of the two men accused of the murder, to the police station, to school friends blaming each other for not doing enough to help him as well as fondly remembering him, to some Cuba Street characters such as a shopper, a restaurant owner, a prostitute, and a group of partying gays.

Parts of newspaper editorials, news reports, letters to the editor and a dismissive columnist’s article are read out, all adding to the total picture of the effect that the murder had on Wellington, but the one person you don’t see is Jeff. However, though his presence is always felt you never get to know him beyond the fact that we are told he was a gentle boy with a quirky imagination and he dyed his hair purple and painted his fingernails green.

Using only numerous green plastic recycling boxes for seating and two wheelie-bins for a bar and a shop counter the setting, ably lit by Jen Lal, conveys the emptiness of Cuba Street at 4am. Ronald Trifero Nelson keeps his eight actors moving seamlessly from one scene to the next but curiously I was left unmoved and uninvolved except for two scenes.

The police officer who felt guilty for not doing enough to help Jeff on the night he died rang true and was touchingly performed as was the heartbreaking song What About the Days written and sung by Romy Hooper.


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Humanity v inhumanity

Review by John Smythe 13th Apr 2007

After an ill-conceived start, The Corner 4am and Cuba sets itself a big challenge to win its audience back. And it does, with a finally powerful community theatre docu-drama provoked by the murder, eight years ago, of a 14 year-old high school student – Jeff – out and about in the wee small hours with his purple hair, black fingernails and a reduced capacity to look after himself.

Bringing us down the side alley to the BATS auditorium could well have given us a salutary dose of some seedier side of our city’s night life. Instead we are obliged to cram into a corner of the Central Fire Station’s back yard and watch a young woman graffiti artist at work, spray-painting a wall through a stencil …

The interminable wait for further and more interesting action is surely a first-night hiccup. But when – as the ‘Zathan’ tag is revealed – the remaining cast finally arrive in a long line humming to a guitar, they evoke nothing more than a bunch of young thespians taking themselves awfully seriously. Then, when at last we are allowed out of the cold into the theatre, we have to stand and watch and listen to more – much more – of the humming and strumming and walking to and fro in a space littered with green recycling bins and a couple of wheelie bins … Again, interminable. Why?

Is it assumed that we have heads so full of our own little worlds that we have to be put through this mind cleansing – mind numbing? – process in preparation for the story to come? Well I say bollocks to that. We have come ready and willing to engage in a theatrical experience and we don’t need to be patronised or manipulated this way. (If I have misunderstood the intention here, please enlighten us.)

A song, ‘We all come out at night …’, enlivens proceedings at last, an outburst from Graffiti Girl (Melissa Phillips) sets the time as 1999 – "As we sing Happy Birthday to the New Millennium I can’t help thinking we’re going backwards" – and we are ‘cast’ as high school pupils as Jean Copeland, in the role of Principal, asks us to find a seat.

Her words – she tells us of the violent death of a "Jeff", a fellow pupil, then updates and counsels us in at subsequent ‘assemblies’ – are those of Prue Kelly who was the Wellington High School Principal when Jeff was murdered. ‘Zathan’, it turns out, was Jeff’s self-selected street name.

Other devices for revealing what happened, and for taking us all on the quest for ‘why?’, include monologue musings ("I’m thinking of hate as a kind of power …"), interactions within the Cuba community, a post-funeral wake involving Jeff’s close friends, witness testimony from the trial transcript (Jason Meads and Steven Smith phoned their fathers when they realised what they’d done and turned themselves into poilce), and eye-witness flashbacks to the fateful night itself, including the observations, attitudes and actions of the perpetrators which are semi-imagined and dramatised in various versions using different actors each time …

Also insightful and touching is a post-incident interview between the over-worked police person (Jaki Trolove) who did not give the clearly incapacitated Jeff a lift home and a senior officer (Jonny Potts). Andrew Waterson, Romy Hooper, Stewart Pedley and Luis Portillo complete the impressive ensemble whose collective research, commitment and dramatic skills combine to imbue us with as much of an understanding as we can hope to achieve of this senseless, stupid crime.

Hooper’s singing of songs she composed herself, Pedley’s singing and guitar playing, and Jen Lal’s lighting enrich proceedings, helping the substantive hour to supersede the 20-odd minutes (far fewer now, I trust) that go before. In retrospect I feel something evoking the carefree quest for youthful "freedom" in a lively city would have been a better set-up for what follows.

Given the opinions that have been expressed on this site about devised work, I am bound to add that Corner 4am and Cuba does not have the greater resonances of, say, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or Paul Rothwell’s Hate Crimes. There are certain truths that fiction explores better and dimensions of character, plot structure and theme that good writers do better than most devising groups (with one or two honourable exceptions).

What gives this production its strength is that it is based on something that really happened in the very community that is now confronting it. It offers an experience that cannot help but nudge us to think about our individual and collective rights and responsibilities, and our capacity for inhumanity to each other.


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