After starting as a standup comedian at small Pittsburgh comedy clubs, Rusty Cundieff went out to Hollywood and found success as an actor working with directors like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. He then wrote and directed his own films, including “The Fear of the Black Hat” and “Tales From The Hood.” He has also become a successful writer and director in television, where his credits include “Chappelle’s Show”, “Bernie Mac”, and “The Wanda Sykes Show.” His trip back to his hometown in mid-July, however, is for a production of a totally different nature. Cundieff is in Pittsburgh filming a special on the Center of Life, a faith-based community empowerment organization in Hazelwood that serves to strengthen families, create opportunities for micro-enterprise and encourage homeownership.
Center of Life is run by another Pittsburgh native, Tim Smith, who is both the executive director of Center of Life and the pastor of the affiliated Keystone Church of Hazelwood. One of Center of Life’s more prominent programs is the KRUNK Movement. KRUNK, an acronym for Kreating Realistic Urban New-School Knowledge, is a program that uses elements of jazz, rap, hip-hop, dance, recording engineering, visual art, and equipment management to communicate positive messages about mental and physical health to teens and pre-teens. KRUNK’s Center of Life Jazz Combo won recognition at the 2012 Monterrey Jazz Festival, placing first at the Open Combo Division of the Next Generation Festival.
“I first heard about KRUNK and about Tim through Carl Kurlander at Steeltown,” explained Cundieff, a longtime Steeltown advisor and frequent Steeltown Film Factory panelist. “Once I got to meet Tim and learn a little more about him, I realized that there is really a lot going on in this small church in Hazelwood. In fact, since I’ve been here, I realized that there are so many kids and so many stories that I needed to call for backup cameras.”
The kids of KRUNK, who play a major role in Cundieff’s special, put on a show every Thursday on Second Avenue in Hazelwood. Every performance features totally new, completely original raps, dances, and other musical compositions and performances. The summer session of KRUNK will culminate on July 30 with a special performance at the Fred Rogers Studio as part of the WQED/Steeltown Incubator.
“When I see a young person with a gift, talent, or ability, it’s my responsibility to connect it back to their real lives,” Smith explained. “I’m concerned with how kids think about themselves. If they know themselves and their journeys, they can convince anyone that they’re the real deal.”
Cundieff sees his special as potentially beneficial to KRUNK and the Center of Life in a number of ways. In the immediate sense, he believes he can help the program flourish by giving it exposure. But more significant, in the mind of Cundieff, is the broader potential to connect with audiences who would not otherwise seek out programs and organizations such as KRUNK and Center of Life. “I want to celebrate what they’re doing here. Sometimes, people share things in common that they don’t know they share. I believe this [documentary/performance special] can create that type of connection with people.”
The fact that a Pittsburgh native-turned Hollywood director/writer/ actor is back in town using his talents to document a local program is not lost on the young members
of KRUNK either. “Rusty’s doing big things, and the fact that he came here to do a documentary about us…just wow!” mused Ronald Brown, a high-school age member of KRUNK who goes by the nickname “iRONic” when he is performing. Brown’s excitement about Cundieff’s project stems from the fact that his confidence and sense of self-worth have grown as a result of his membership in KRUNK. “Tim always tells us ‘the best thing is always the next thing.’ I can’t be satisfied with what I’ve done so far, I need to keep growing and keep looking for the next opportunity.”
The special Cundieff is filming also has another more personal connection for him. Cundieff’s mother and father both did a lot of volunteer work with Pittsburgh’s Manchester Youth Center throughout their lives. Now, with the help of the WQED/Steeltown Incubator, Cundieff is able to use his own talents to help locally, shining a spotlight on another program for Pittsburgh youth.