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Early in 2009, as Diann Takens-Cerbone sat in an East Side church during the funeral for a young woman who had died under tragic circumstances, the pastor began to read a passage from "Hamlet."

"In all candor, I thought, ‘What are you doing? That is never going to work here, just not in this context,' " Takens-Cerbone recalled. But as the words of Shakespeare's best-known soliloquy – "To be, or not to be, that is the question ..." – washed over the congregants, Takens-Cerbone quickly succumbed to the rhythm of the pastor's words.

"I experienced something that, after over 20 years of living in the city and doing urban ministry, I had never experienced," she said. "I felt like my back was nailed to the hard wooden pews of that church, it was so riveting. And the whole church was silenced by the profundity of this soliloquy and its application to this modern-day tragedy. It was one of the greatest things to be wrong about, because it worked beautifully, and it was a brilliant and courageous moment."

Takens-Cerbone, the executive director of the West Side community organization Peace of the City Ministries, soon founded the student project "Shakespeare Comes to (716)." In 2009, the newly formed group brought more than 400 people to Renovation Church on Hertel Avenue for a performance of "Romeo and Juliet." The next year, the group mounted two performances of "Macbeth" and followed that up in 2011 with a three-show run of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

And tonight in Ujima's TheatreLoft (545 Elmwood Ave.), the increasingly popular summer youth project will mount a four-show production of "Much Ado About Nothing," Shakespeare's beloved comedy about deception and gossip.

"Shakespeare does translate from old, white English guys ... to modern, urban America and the realities that our young people deal with here," Takens-Cerbone said. The play, which will be set in a beauty parlor, is directed by Megan McClain Kwacz, creative arts director for Peace of the City.

When the project's production of "Romeo and Juliet" opened in 2009, organizers weren't sure what to expect.

"What began happening was something that I had kind of pictured in movies, or when you have moments where you fantasize that the impact of your work is actually much greater than it really is. I started seeing people walking down the sidewalk and I realized, they're coming to this play," Takens-Cerbone recalled. "Women were coming with hats and dressed to the hilt. Families were coming. It was astonishing and it was standing-room only."

While productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Macbeth" more obviously deal with issues of violence and prejudice with which urban students are all too familiar, "Much Ado About Nothing" makes its own potent statement about the destructive power of gossip.

"It's he-said, she-said, and even though it's funny, it has massive implications when that is all that is important in your day," Takens-Cerbone said. "We went with something that we hadn't done and we thought would help them understand their own lives and their own choices. Because ultimately, we're glad to be doing this for the audience, but we do this for the kids."

>"Fostering the Future"

Another production featuring Buffalo students, these exclusively from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, will kick off July 27. "The Great Gilly Hopkins," directed by Kelly Beuth, will run for two performances July 27 and 28 in the BAVPA Black Box Theatre (450 Masten Ave.). The play is part of the "Fostering the Future" program, a collaboration between the school and Child and Family Services aimed at raising awareness about foster parents.

"We call the partnership Fostering the Future so that it refers not only to foster children and foster programs, but fostering our children's awareness at Performing Arts about using theater as a community-relevant venture, not just for entertainment," Beuth said. "Last year, CFS had a number of people call in and sign up to [be] foster parents as a result of what we did. "

Tickets are $6 for adults and $3 for students, with more information available at 574-9139.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Much Ado ?About Nothing"

Student production of the Shakespeare comedy, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Ujima TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. Admission is pay-what-you-can.

For information, 828-8683 or www.peaceofthecity.org.