Seeing The Unseen: Reflecting On The New Works At The Wilbury Theatre Play, Invisible Upsouth by Christopher Johnson in collaboration with Vatic Kuumba
This past Saturday I attended a full day of cultural events around the city, all related in some way to race and social justice on both a national, and local to Providence, level. I started out visiting the MOJOscapes exhibition put on by Brown University’s Africana Studies Department Rites and Reasons Theater. The exhibit was a multi-media installation including artwork by RISD alum turned community activist, Jordan Seaberry, poetry by a collective of Brown students, and a video montage of footage showing the work of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, images of the many men, boys, and women who have died in the last few years–unarmed, yet killed, mostly, at the hands of police officers, as well as a video that used runners of color and white runners to depict the effects of white privilege and obstacles made for people of color that have created gross inequities in life.
Next up, I went to our city jewel of a library, the Providence Athenaeum’s Salon Series talk to listen to Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet, writer, and most recently, a Yale Law School student. Betts, with depth, candor, and humor, read from his two books of poetry, Shaheed Reads His Own Palm and Bastards of the Reagan Era, as well as from his memoir, A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age In Prison. Afterward Betts opened up a question and answer dialogue with the packed crowd. (I will be writing a well-deserved separate post about this event at the end of the week.)
From the Athenaeum on the East Side, I dashed over to the South Side of Providence to catch my final event for the night: Invisible UpSouth, a New Works at the Wilbury Theatre Group production, by Christopher Johnson, in collaboration with Vatic Kuumba.
I had been looking forward to this because I was happy for my friend, Christopher, an award winning spoken-word poet and arts educator who I’ve known since I reached out to him for a teaching project, after seeing him perform several times in Providence. Christopher agreed to teach poetry to the lower grade elementary school students, including a classroom of students with special needs, in the I WAS THERE Oral History Arts Integration program my friend Cathy Car Kelly and I were running at the time, at the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point. He would later humbly share that it was one of the most challenging experiences he ever had, being used to teaching teens and adults, and that he had thought of quitting, but one of the special education teachers had pulled him aside telling him he couldn’t because this was the only special enrichment programming the kids ever got. Christopher stayed and did an amazing job, getting the students to write poems about their identity, to complete self-portrait collages to accompany the poems, and coached the students in their performance for the I WAS THERE final public event.
Christopher had shared with me in November 2015, that he had been commissioned to write this play for the Wilbury after theater members, Kate Kataja, Artist Associate, and Josh Short, Founder/Artistic Director, saw him perform at this summer’s Providence Fringe Festival. They asked Christopher to write a play inspired by the classic text, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and relate that to Christopher’s current concerns over race, of feeling unseen and heard by white friends and acquaintances on Facebook and elsewhere, who would rather talk about a snow storm than another killing of a young, unarmed black boy, at the hands of a white civilian or police officer.
He had even sent me some writing to review and give feedback on–text and poems that Christopher envisioned as scrolling down a screen at the opening of the play. So when I sat in the nearly full audience on Saturday night, just four months after his given commission and watched Christopher’s vision come to fruition, watched those words that he sent me scroll down the screen just as he imagined them, I was inspired, and proud of him for making this happen–for creating something out of nothing. Here we all were, that night to experience his play. A post Christopher had made on Facebook this same week about the internal process–the discipline, the self-examination, the struggle of pushing one’s self outside of one’s comfort zone, the challenge of listening to one’s self and not letting self-doubt or the opinions of others tear you down gave me an even bigger glimpse at what it took for Christopher as a person to achieve this goal, which is again, inspiring to me, as a writer who is trying to grow and push myself to get my work out there.
Christopher collaborated in writing Invisible Upsouth with local poet, Vatic Kuumba, originally from Florida. The play, which opens and closes with two book-end poems, weaves several more poems between a series of storytelling scenes. It was said in the talk-back following the performance, that the poems served as the skeleton of the play, which Christopher, as the main writer, built the story around.
The opening poem, Bulletproof/Impeccable, had the two poets standing on wooden block pedestals. Vatic, 30, tall and lean with long dreads half-tucked up above the nape of his neck. and Christopher, 45, perhaps representing his Newark, New Jersey upbringing, dressed in a velour track suit and Kangol cap, his dreads in pony tail. Their poem told of how both men despite the time and place they grew up in were given the same message–Christopher by his aunt, who he’d overhear talking at her home Tupperware parties, about how black boys and men had to be 3x better than white men if they were ever going to succeed in anything, and Vatic, over conversations with his dying grandfather, whose “3x better” and “you must be impeccable,” translated to the words, “you must be bulletproof.”
From there Vatic took on the role of Young Man, a young, black man living in Providence, who has a lot on his mind about race, injustice, and art, amidst the backdrop of living in a neighborhood where racial profiling, and friends and acquaintances deal with the every day possibility of being stopped by police, or beat-up, or worst of all, shot, over beef between East Side and South Side gang members, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This accepted way of life for the young man, and his friend Prince (played by an actor I admire from Everett Company, Ari Brisbon) who appears in several scenes, seemed to me deftly handled as yet another aspect of the unseen by many white people who have the privilege of living where they don’t have to walk down the street worrying that they’ll make it to their destination alive, or at least not harassed for being suspected of intent to commit a crime because of the color of their skin.
We find out the young man works at a Federal Hill (the Italian neighborhood of Providence, which in decades past was known to be openly unwelcoming to black people) restaurant as a bartender, noted as something rare here in Providence–a black man as a front of the house server. Yet, we see his position is precarious. The white manager (played by Melissa), an abrupt woman, constantly and overbearingly warns the man, and the young, white female bartender, who has immigrated here from Russia, Katerina (played by Beth Alianiello), from fraternizing while working.
During a three-way conversation at work between the manager, young man, and Katerina, about the real-life #BlackLivesMatter protest that blocked off the I-95 highway in Providence during rush hour one evening, a dialogue ensues and the manager and Katerina break into a dialogue spouting every persecutory statement white people say who don’t believe in #BlackLivesMatter or the still pervasive racism and structural racism that created current conditions of inequities between the races. While at times I wondered if the scene was heavy-handed in using all of these biased and stereotypical statements piled one on top of another, I have heard every single one of them said numerous times when I have conversations with people about the current state of race, or overhear white people talking about #BLM and police killings of unarmed people of color.
So when the manager and Katerina say things like..”Why do they have to disrupt these innocent people who have nothing to do with the issues,” or “why can’t they be peaceful?” or “Why can’t they just respect the police when they get pulled over”..”police are trying to protect and they don’t have an easy job”….or the epitome of invalidation of a cause: “All lives matter”…and then go on to challenge with questions like “What about black on black crime?”…and give what they think are compliments, like when Katerina tells the young man, “You speak so well, and you’re smart, and yet not so smart for making everything about race”..well, it’s easy for the young man to feel invisible.
As a romantic relationship develops between Katerina and the young man despite their differences of opinion, a lively and humorous scene, with Katerina at the young man’s apartment begins with the Old Man character played by Christopher, apparent not as a material person, but as an elder voice, trying to help the young man score, by prodding him on what to say and not to say to win the woman over.
Yet, tension rises after the young man gets fired, supposedly for over-fraternizing with Katerina, but as alluded to in the firing scene, it’s believed the manager found out he’s involved in #BlackLivesMatter activism, and that was too much for her to bear. She promises to write the young man a sealed recommendation letter, that turns out later, when Katerina opens secretly opens it, to be a scathing letter, that would only hurt the man’s chances of getting a new job. Still, Katerina and the young man seem so invested in their own perspectives on matters of race–he, believing that so much related to his life, and the lives of people of color, is about race, and hers that he is holding himself back and making excuses based on his focusing too much on race, leaves them both feeling unseen and unheard.
Another connecting element in the play is the theme of loneliness and identity, shown through reference to the inclusion of a story-line about a young grafitti artist named Sensei (based on a real-life local grafitti artist who was arrested and fined heavily for his work) whose tags all over the city saying things like..Lonely As I’ll Ever Be..Christopher connected to, and knew he wanted to include in his play, as something the young man character could also relate to as he sought out his own forsaken identity–words he says he saw sprayed across a bridge he walked over on his way to work.
As things escalate, both the young man’s long-time friend, the only person he feels understands him, Prince, is killed during a riot after hearing about the killing of two young men of color as a result of police brutality in their neighborhood, and so is the grafitti artist, Sensei. The audience is left to wonder whether Prince and Sensei also died at the hands of police officers–during the riot, or in police custody, just two more young men of color to add to the list of those gone too soon, and for no apparent reason.
We, like Christopher explained in the talk back, are left to also wonder, as in the case of the grafitti artist: “Is there a death penalty for painting now?” Does a man deserve to die for selling loose cigarettes? Does a seventeen year-old boy deserve to die for stealing cigars? And, while all but one of the poems heard throughout the play were written specifically for Invisible UpSouth, the poem, the powerful, Black Mother’s Pain, was written after the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999.
Of this, Christopher said, “It’s still relevant. I wish it wasn’t….I mean, a poet’s work should stand up over time, and here it is almost twenty years later and it’s relevant to what is happening today….I hope this poem is not relevant twenty years from today.”
Invisible UpSouth ended it’s two-weekend run this past Sunday. Yet, Artistic Associate of the Wilbury Theater Group, Kate Kataja, who was part of the talk-back session, stated that it is the hopes of the New Works program, that the plays incubated at the theatre, with support and resources for artists to fully develop their work, have a life after their showing at the Wilbury. And, though when I congratulated Christopher after the play, he said that he didn’t think he’d “take it this far again..” I hope that he does, and that he and Vatic continue to perform it to wider audiences in Providence and beyond.