More than a decade ago when I lived in Washington, DC, I was cast in a production at Arena Stage called the Southwest Project. Conceived and directed by Rebecca Rice, the Southwest Project was an oral history initiative that sought to uncover the buried and burnt secrets of Southwest DC, the smallest, perhaps most overlooked portion of the city.
But in the post-WWII years, nationwide developers began to urge politicians to replaced dilapidated, crumbling, overcrowded apartment buildings and alley dwellings in urban areas with new housing. Southwest became a target with disastrous effects:
The implementation of the urban renewal project displaced the large number of African Americans living in Southwest D.C. The project leveled 99 percent of buildings in the Southwestern quadrant of the city and forced the 4,500 African American families who had previously resided [there]… to relocate to other areas –mainly to Northeast and Southeast D.C. Of the 5,900 new buildings constructed in the area, only 310 were classified as moderately-priced housing units. … While local critics deemed the urban renewal program to be the “Negro Removal Program,” the project had a wide impact on the nation as it became a model for other large cities to emulate. (quoted from http://whosedowntown.wordpress.com/urban-renewal-the-story-of-southwest-d-c/)
To eliminate the properties quickly and diminish the spread of “disease,” a “controlled” burn was set by the fire department that incinerated thousands of homes and businesses. Initially it was scheduled to burn for just a few days, but the fire quickly got out of control and burned for many more days and nights. In the rush to leave the community in the final days, many pets and personal items were lost or left behind that would be engulfed by the flames. These things and lives would never be recovered. The community that would be built on the ashes of the old Southwest would include few low or mixed income houses, few African Americans, a larger number of high rise condos, and, eventually the Arena Stage, a major regional theatre with limited contact with its neighbors.
To develop the performance piece some 50 years later in 2001, Rebecca dispersed the ensemble of actors and production assistants to interview people throughout the neighborhood while she developed deep and lasting relationships with people at several Black churches whose congregations had survived the burn. After we conducted the interviews we shared our tapes with Rebecca and she passed them out between ensemble members based on her personal assessment of how you might treat the material.
I remember being handed the tape that contained the interview with the young graffiti artist who called himself Vigilante Artist and a few other items– perhaps a newspaper article. There was very little time to synthesize anything so backstage in the minutes before we had to present our interpretations of the interviews to Rebecca and the rest of the group, I found myself rehearsing in a small room. The story — fictionalized — of a young girl whose brother had been shot by an unknown assailant came to me in a flash, as did the idea of her being a graffiti artist in response to his passing. I quickly created an outline with which to improvise a story and before i knew it was onstage making the first version of what has become my most enduring solo performance work, Vigilante. Artist.
Today I restaged it for yet another audience of young black children, this time from the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy out of Detroit, MI. This time many miles from the place it originated, once again I met a woman in the audience for whom this “fictional” story was true. Everywhere I perform it I meet someone who knows someone who was shot and killed in the streets, often for no good reason. Today, I learned that over a decade ago this woman had lost her son after he confronted a much older man who was messing with his sister. Rather than acknowledge wrong-doing and apologize, this older so-called adult man retaliated by walking into his house, getting his gun, and shooting her son in the back. The boy would die in his sisters arms, pleading with her to understand his death was not her fault, that he would do it all again, and that for herself and the future of their family that she had to stay in school and finish college. Today, that young girl has finished graduate school in, perhaps unsurprisingly, criminal justice.
I prefer not to stage stories about young black men getting murdered. I think we get enough of those stories told in the media and I’m not sure what the practice of repeatedly telling stories about black men who die violent deaths offers audiences today. Without dismissing the outrageous number of deaths or turning a blind eye to the multiple social problems that underlie the high murder rate, I have to say I would still much rather tell stories about young black men with dynamic, not uncomplicated, futures.
But today, I was reminded of how important it is for artists to create responsible spaces in which to talk about black life and death and social inequity that does not assert, as I have heard so many say in the wake of the murder of #MikeBrown in #Ferguson, if you don’t want to get hurt, get off the streets/pull up your pants/stop mouthing off/keep your hands up where police can see them etc.
This may be good advice to manage the police or another assailant in the moment, but it does nothing to address the true problem of America’s desire to use up and eliminate generations of black people from this soil. It does not address the problem of our whites-only settler colony built to support the power, security and citizenry of an elite white few. In the indelible words of Langston Hughes, I believe:
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
Today, I am reminded of the power of performance to create those spaces for critical dialogue about issues we need to talk about, but often do not know how to begin, and a model of civic engagement and collective responsibility that transforms where we live and what we know now into a truly more inclusive society.