I witnessed a historic theatrical event Monday night–the world premiere of the One-Minute Play Festival’s Every 28 Hours at Trinity Repertory Company here in Providence.
The One-Minute Play Festival is a theater company out of New York City that produces one-minute plays which aim to tell a neighborhood’s story through community engagement. Every 28 Hours is the current festival theme, and is based on the events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in the summer of 2014 in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Every 28 Hours stands for the supposed statistic that every 28 hours, an unarmed black man is killed by a police officer.
The anticipation of the packed audience, young and old, black, white, and brown, in the intimate Dowling Theater at Trinity Rep was in the air, as the Extraordinary Rendition Band–a street band open to all,with a mission to bring attention to selected causes, paraded onto the stage–drums, brass and percussion, and rag-tag red outfits in full glory. After a softly sung We Shall Overcome, a young woman from the band spoke while the band continued to play. She spoke of the injustices that this audience seemed sadly all too well aware of–the killings of far too many young, unarmed, black men and women, mostly at the hands of police officers.
After the band finished, Joe Wilson, Jr., actor and playwright with Trinity Rep, stepped onstage. Mr. Wilson shared with us, that despite the hateful comments that appeared on social media regarding the announcement of the local Every 28 Hours performance, the show was being held, and that this very action “is how we move things forward, with art and love, and theater.” We learned that Wilson was a part of a group of actors and playwrights from around the country who visited Ferguson, Missouri last week to meet with the One-Minute Play Festival group, learn the methodology of going out into the community to gather stories, create plays and then take the plays back to their own communities. Yet, Trinity Rep is the only theater doing the show this week, while most other groups will premiere the Every 28 Hours One-Minute Play Festival some time next year.
Wilson further explained how he and the other artists met with community leaders, residents, the faith community, and the school that Michael Brown attended to learn about how the events of Ferguson have impacted individuals, and their community. There were many interviews culled, but Wilson noted that the interviewers were not allowed to take notes, but to connect more intimately through conversation. Conducting the interview in pairs, Wilson said, allowed one artist to catch something said, or a certain mannerism that the other might have missed. Writing solely from inspiration derived from these connections, the artists gathered to write their plays–all of this taking place in one short week.
Wilson’s passion shined brightly as he spoke, and he became emotional when he dedicated this show’s performance to Dr. Barbara Meek, a long-time company member of Trinity Rep, a woman Wilson said taught him how to be inquisitive, and whom he loved dearly.
As we braced ourselves for the eighty, one-minute plays that we were about to witness–plays written by playwrights and actors from near and far, and acted by scores of actors, as well as students from all over the city–Wilson asked us to consider “every minute as a heartbeat, a snapshot of the world..” and that with each snapshot, we hear a different story, and get a more inclusive, better picture of the world we live in.
And with that, the festival sprang into action, with nine sets of seven or eight plays each. With each set, a group of between six and a dozen or so actors of all ages and races stepped onto the stage and sat in a row of seats set across it. They’d rise when it was their turn, while the other actors remained seated. At times white actors took on the role of a black character and vice versa, women played men’s roles, and it all worked. The most extraordinary thing to me was that Wilson explained to us that all of these actors had arrived at the theater at 5:30 that evening, and had only one hour to see their scripts, and rehearse.
The play themes were directly linked to the Ferguson incident, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the larger social issues of racism, white privilege, policing, and the invalidation of black people’s feelings about the inequities they face. Each play magnified snapshots of the world that Mr. Wilson spoke of in his introduction to Every 28 Hours, and reflected back to us our humanity, in all its ugliness, and flawed, beauty.
In one play, a white teacher reads aloud in a classroom the line from the Texas textbook that tells the whitewashed story of how people from Africa were brought to the states as “workers” on plantations. A young black man counters the teacher’s story by saying they weren’t workers, they were slaves. As the back and forth continues between the two, the teacher, irked by the black student’s interjections, stops and says, “Wait..who’s telling this story?” The student responds, “Good question!”
In another, a young black woman stares dumbfounded at the television news coverage of Ferguson, saying, “this seems like war…” Her friend retorts, “This is war! Palestinian youth have sent our youth instructions on how to protect themselves from teargas. Palestinian youth! One part Maalox. One part water.”
There were many powerful, sad, uncomfortable, emotional moments, and they came at the audience rapid-fire, so much so, that my head, and my heart, spun, working hard to process all that I was bearing witness to.
There was the exchange between a man and a woman who says she’s leaving town to pursue acting and voice-over jobs. He teases her, asking her to do the voice of a cat, and other obvious noises, and then stings with the challenge, “what is a white person’s voice when they see a black man lying dead in the street?” Silence.
A police officer pleading with us to consider that he has just “two seconds between life and death…you try it sometimes if you think it’s so f__king easy!”
There was the play Other Stats that showed the ridiculousness of the attempt of statistics to categorize the behavior of black people. “Every three seconds a black person laughs,” reads the white man, while the black man and woman standing on either side of him, laugh. “Every eight minutes, a black person makes a profound decision.” The black woman looks thoughtful and then says, “I’ll have the black bean burrito…that I’ve ordered for the last three days in a row.”
The theme of how many white people just don’t “get it” when they declare things like “all lives matter,” or don’t realize all the privileges they have, were also given context in some of the plays. In one, a white woman is approached by two policemen who wonder if the laptop she is carrying might be stolen, yet then let her go, even after discovering a gun in her handbag, a gun that she says she uses for protection. The policemen bid her farewell, gun and all, saying, “Be careful. It’s dangerous out there.”
In one striking play, six or eight actors stand side-by-side, their voices echoing and layering with, “I knew him..” “…I saw it happen…” “he’s somebody’s child..” “somebody’s baby…” All the while, a woman is stomping her foot, a heartbeat? a gun shot? a battle? And as the layer of voices become rhythmic, the woman who is stomping, murmurs a tinge of gospel. Several audience members respond with, “go ahead, now.” The actors finish with their hands in the infamous hands up, don’t shoot stance, in unison shouting, “his hands were up!”
My friend, Ellen, who also attended, shared with me her feelings about the final play, which for me was also one of the many moving moments. She expresses what I had a hard time putting into words, perhaps it too profoundly sad for me to wrap any words around, and so I thank Ellen for doing it so well for me.
Ellen shares, “The group that went last, I believe, the one with the “mothers” theme. With lines like “we got another member of the group today” (i.e., the club of women who’ve lost their sons), etc. People don’t really talk about the mothers (and, of course, fathers, but somehow the mothers break our hearts more). They have lost their babies, their children, their sons, their young men, their futures. They will grieve for the rest of their lives and remember their boys as they were, frozen forever at the age they were struck down.”
“The one that especially got me was the one where the mother character says that she took her son down to the police station when they moved into the neighborhood, and introduced him to every single police officer, made sure they knew his name, what he looked like, that he belonged there. I loved that — what a great idea! I thought, and then I realized that no mother should have to do that! And he got killed anyway. Heartbreaking.”
Restless, overwhelmed, angry, and heartbroken, I felt like the white woman in the one play that spoke to the way we frame “those kind of neighborhoods” where all the bad stuff happens. The play featured a three-way call between two black women and one white woman, a blend of gossip over the Mike Brown shooting, one-upping one another about the places they live in “changing your zip code doesn’t change the color of your skin!”, and finishing with one of the black woman intentionally slipping and saying, “I guess you’re white” instead of “right,” exasperated by her friend’s perspective of the incident through the lens of white privilege.
My white moment was when I caught myself longing for at least one of the plays to show a glimmer of hope. I’m a Pollyanna by nature, but was able to realize that these were the stories that were being heard and gathered in Ferguson and there was no clean, tidy, rainbow ending, at least not yet.
But hope did come. It came wrapped up in the closing performance by one of the young black male actors, who took the stage with an acoustic guitar and sang, Wake Up Everybody. As he sang, Joe Wilson, Jr. called in all the actors who had just performed, to wrap around the stage and along the aisles. It was a beautiful moment, uniting all of us there in that space, holding us, calling us to action, and as Mr. Wilson said, showing us how love and art can move us forward, together, one heartbeat at a time.
In the Talk Back that followed the show, Mr. Wilson shared more about the process of connecting with the people of Ferguson, and the methodology of the One-Minute Play Festival, as well as his observations of how systemic racism–redlining, and how the land mass in the Midwest affords an even greater opportunity to isolate communities of color–via the way highways are designed, the lack of public transportation, the “donut ring” of housing where black people are designated to one area of the ring, with rings of suburbs surrounding them that are white neighborhoods built on covenants that kept black people out.
He spoke of Normandy High School, the school Michael Brown attended, and how it had lost its accreditation several years ago, and how students there because of this, were allowed to go to one of the “donut” schools in the white neighborhood, but because there had been such inequities in education, many of the students from Normandy couldn’t make it, or felt so unwelcome, that they returned to Normandy. I could sense Mr. Wilson’s dismay as he spoke about the systemic racism, and the subjegation of the people of Ferguson, who were and continue to be cut off from opportunities to accumulate wealth, and equality on so many levels. Yet, I also sensed his passion for the Every 28 Hours project, and the pride that Trinity Rep was the first to premiere it.
Also, on stage during the Talk Back was Elmo Terry-Morgan, Associate Professor and Artistic Director of Rites and Reason Theatre at Brown University. Mr. Terry-Morgan, while glad to be a part of this project, told the audience “we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back…this could happen here,” noting his knowledge of instances where Asian students in Providence were being profiled as suspected gang members. He went on to add that he would like to collaborate with Trinity Rep and Mixed Magic Theater to put together a local version of the Every 28 Hours theme, saying there are many tales here that we could tell. On matters of racism, Mr. Morgan said we “do a lot of talking…we say, “well, we sure talked about that now, didn’t we?…Good night..”
Referencing the current incident where a young black employee at a Providence Dunkin Donuts wrote “Black Lives Matter” on a coffee cup that a police man purchased, which angered the police man and the police community, Mr. Terry-Morgan said, “when things like this happen, some people hear: war against cops. I’d like to pose the question: what is Black Lives Matter not? and have that conversation to increase understanding.”
I was unable to stay for the entirety of the Talk Back, but this night will stay with me forever. I am grateful to have been a witness to this premiere event in our very own city, and look forward to all the good it will do, all the conversations it will start, and the calls to action it will provoke, and the human connection it will encourage, as it shows around the country.
SOURCES: www.youtube.com, Wake Up Everybody, Every 28 Hours, Trinity Repertory Company, posted by Erin X. Smithers
For quality photos (much better than mine!) taken during Every 28 Hours, please visit photographer and writer, Erin X. Smithers’ blog containing photos of the event at: