Sadly, A Still Timely Encore: The Every 28 Hours Plays and Community Response Plays at Trinity Repertory Company
Trinity Rep actor, Joe Wilson, Jr., was one of a group of fifty actors, playwrights, artists and activists invited to be part of the non-profit organization, The One-Minute Play Festival’s, Every 28 Hours Plays project. All fifty went to Ferguson, Missouri a year after the young, unarmed, black teen, Mike Brown was killed by a white police officer , and met with community members to gather their stories, and shape them into plays, or as founder, and Producing Artistic Director of the One-Minute Play Festival, Dominic D’Andrea calls them, snapshots or windows into a community at that very moment. Every 28 Hours refers to the contested statistic that every 28 hours, an unarmed Black person is shot and killed by a police officer, vigilante, or security guard.
Swept up in the excitement and importance of getting the plays seen by our local community, Joe, fresh off the plane from Ferguson last October, got into town, gathered up the scripts–70 one-minute plays–and put a call out to actors, and volunteers of all ages, races, and genders to act out the plays just days after his return. Over 100 volunteer actors showed up to perform, and Providence premiered the plays on October 26, 2015 at the Dowling Theater at Trinity.
The encore of the plays took place this Monday, October 17th. There were the opening acts of RPM Voices choir, and hip-hop collective Project 401, and then Joe made his introduction, proudly sharing that the Providence method of producing the plays, became a model shared with partnering theaters across the country who waited until this October to showcase The Every 28 Hours Plays. On the very night we watched the plays this week, four other theaters across the country, from New York City to San Francisco, were premiering the very same plays.
It was interesting to me to see how though I had witnessed the plays already (read the post here), and noticed in addition to the many new faces, a number of the same actors from last year’s plays, the treatment of the plays–how they were acted and staged were different–which seemed to provoke different emotional responses from myself, and the audience. Still unfortunately timely two years after Mike Brown’s death, The Every 28 Hours Plays, provided an all too real window in to today’s world of what it is like to live as a Black person in America. Some of the plays got at the core of things in subtle ways, even made us laugh, and some felt like one explosion of grief and sorrow after another, much like the bullet shots ripping intermittently throughout the night’s plays in the form of a clap, a foot-stomp, a thud to the ground.
In the emotional finale, actors reentered though the theater aisles, dropping to their deaths on stage, as others called out the names of the over one-hundred unarmed people of color killed by police officers in this year alone. As the actors rose up to receive their standing ovation, a young actor/singer from last year’s performance ended the evening with his acoustic rendition of Wake Up Everybody, unifying the actors and audience in song.
The Our Response Plays
I returned to Trinity’s Dowling Theater the following night, eager to see The Every 28 Hours Plays: Our Response. Joe Wilson, Jr., once again opened the night’s performance with an introduction on how these plays evolved. With Dominic D’Andrea by his side, Joe shared how he didn’t want the performance of The Every 28 Hour Plays to be a one-time thing, and being that Providence led the nation in performing them last October, he wanted to take the project one step further. Joe noted that theater directors from some of our local colleges had reached out to him saying, “we want the plays!…give us the plays..” Joe, believing that the process of how the plays were created was important, pulled together four community dialogues with Dominic facilitating them, to share the One-Minute Play Festival model. Rebecca Noon, Trinity Rep’s Community Engagement Coordinator, seemed to play a large role in outreach and coordination of the volunteers that became involved with the plays.
The dialogues took place at the Community College of Rhode Island, Wheaton College, the University of Rhode Island, and the Southside Cultural Center with the City of Providence. The audience was reminded that here we are two years after the Mike Brown incident, and one year after the creation of the Ferguson plays. Therefore, the students and community residents attending the dialogues were asked to create plays that reflected what was relevant to them at this moment in time in Providence. Participants while addressing police brutality and the injustices against Black people, also focused on the broader matters of race, inclusion, white supremacy, gender, and a matter directly tied to our city, The Providence Community Safety Act (CSA).
The Community Safety Act is proposed legislation to ensure police accountability, and to create safer communities for all by doing away with discriminatory policing practices, with excessive force used by police officers in communities of color, by improving relationships and trust between the police and these communities, and addressing the root causes that perpetuate violence in these communities.
The Our Response plays rang some similar notes to the original Every 28 Hour Plays, with moments shining a light on the difference between a white person vs. a Black person being pulled over by the police, mothers losing their sons to unjustified police violence, and the unveiling of white privilege and white silence.
Yet, having college students involved in the plays lended fresh takes not seen in the previous night’s plays, on topics of interracial dating, and the choice of selfies and social media mindlessness over the seriousness of racial violence. One of the plays shook me viscerally. A white daughter dating a young, black man fights with her bigoted father about her right to love who she loves. When the father tells her she needs to respect him, she spits on him, uttering forcefully, “You need to earn my respect!”
Another powerful play featured local poet, Christopher Johnson, surrounded by three white actors with their hands poised as guns pointed at Christopher. Only, the bullets used to slowly kill him, were the onslaught of verbal micro-agressions. “Can I touch your hair?”…” I don’t see color”…”well, what about black-on-black crime?”…as Christopher slowly crumbled to the ground, with each denial of the validity of his existence.
A stunning finale was the re-entering of the actors, led by actress, Sylvia Soares. Sylvia took front and center of the stage, and gracefully raised her arms up and out, breathing and exhaling deeply. All the remaining actors slowly joined behind and to the sides of her. Their collective breathing filled the theater. I wondered, are they angels? Innocent people of color, their lives taken for the melanin in their skin? The actors moved in unison in short spurts, closer to the edge of the stage with each breath, their faces solemn, as if with their silence they were shouting, Hey, look at us, pay attention! Do something! Before it’s too late.
I stepped outside the theater while there was a break between the plays and the Talk Back. Once again I was overwhelmed by the layers of deep thought and feelings the plays generated within. While waiting by the food truck for some french fries, I struck up a conversation with a young woman of color, Chantal.
I asked Chantal if she was with one of the colleges involved with the plays and she shared she graduated college last year. I then asked her which play stood out for her tonight.
She told me, “the play with the two women, (one white and one Black), where the Black woman is asking if she could touch the white woman’s hair, because that’s exactly how I used to feel. I used to watch Mary Kate and Ashley on TV, and really wished I had hair like theirs…”
My mind flashed back to that play, which also stood out for me, as it represented the inner dialogues both women were having, sharing their curiosity and idealization of one another–of the Black woman, subjugated to believe in the idealized image of white beauty with its porcelain skin and good hair, and the white woman in the exoticizing of the other as she described the rich, mahogany skin, full lips and textured hair of the Black woman standing beside her. Both asking in unison, “Can I touch it?” yet the audience knowing these are questions not asked, only desired to ask, if they had had the courage to reveal their inner thoughts.
As I stood beside Chantal, tall and lean, with short, loose curly hair, she told me about how her sister who is thirteen years older than her, was “the pioneer who taught me all about our hair, the difference of textures, and how to work with it..”
Like the white woman in the play, and for having heard many, many times from people of color how they are tired of being asked, “What are you?” I silently refrained from asking Chantal that very question, yet embarrassingly conscious of my desire to do so, as she pointed out, “see, my hair’s curly, but it’s not as tightly curly as the girl ahead of us in line.”
Chantal asked me how the Our Response plays compared to the original plays.
“Were last night’s more angry?” she asked.
“Hmmm, I don’t know.. perhaps there was more intensity in some, but I sensed anger in some of tonight’s plays, too. One thing I did notice though in these plays, was in a few of them, there seemed to be a faint glimmer of hope.”
I continued, “Last year I remember writing about the plays, and being a Pollyanna, noticing there was not a sign of hope in the plays.”
Those plays were of their moment, and that moment in time was brutal, and the moments captured on stage reflected the overwhelming sense of anger, loss and grief, without any signs of a way out of what was happening.
Yet, tonight, a few of the plays, talked about healing the infected wound that is pervading this country and it’s current civil rights crisis, and spoke, even of, forgiveness. Not the “let’s be the gentle, God loving, patient Black people, who make white people feel better with our forgiveness,” but a forgiveness that perhaps invites white people to confront themselves and their role in white supremacy and the horrors that stemmed and continued to stem from it, and an allowance for them to work on fixing things, on righting their wrongs.
I thanked Chantal for our conversation and walked back into the theater for the Talk Back led by Joe and Dominic.
Audience members reflected on the plays and expressed their concerns about current conditions in this country, and wondered aloud how we will be able to move forward.
Among the voices in the audience, these were some of the pressing questions. I wish I could include them all:
“How do we prepare our children to be out in the community, and to be safe? That’s my biggest concern.”
“How do you make someone, or encourage someone to care?”
“How do you allow someone to ask questions? We think we understand just enough, and then we settle..and the conversation stops there..”
“Dark women don’t matter..what about Black women? We’ve been stomped on all the time..”
When a white woman stated in her concern and hope for working together to make things better and said…”we are all the same…,” Christopher Johnson inserted, “We are not all the same,” as a reminder, a correction, a redirecting for white people who need to acknowledge that the desire should not be for a color blind society, and that we do have cultural differences, and different ways of being treated in society based on the pigment of our skins.
A discussion ensued on white supremacy, and the legal ways that Black people have continued to be enslaved and oppressed, as outlined in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and Ava Duvernay’s new documentary, 13th.
To illustrate this, local actress, Jackie Davis, said,”in response to the lovely white-haired woman from Barrington, my white sister, who said, ‘I don’t have to worry about leaving my house,’ “well, we put flesh and blood into this. I worry about my thirty year-old daughter every day, and about whether she will make it home each night…”
A young teen shared, “It’s not enough to say you’re not racist, homophobic, sexist..and be complacent with that. It’s not enough.”
Joe, added from his seat on the stage, “you know..you might think we are, but we’re not preaching to the choir here. We’re theater artists and theater lovers, but we still have work to do…Are we really allies? We talk..I’m a 45 year-old Black man, and I still have stuff to learn, to try and be more woke every day. We have to stop making assumptions that we know everything, or that we’re preaching to the choir. We still have work to do.”
In drawing the conversation to a close, Dominic said that he likes to ask the audience for their “What if’s..” Voices began to arise one by one with their wishes:
“What if we were kind to one another?
“What if I knew you? I wouldn’t be afraid of you.”
“What if we talked about race in public schools?”
“What if we looked at ourselves as humanity instead of our differences in race?” In response to this, the man of color sitting beside me added, ” a multiplicitous humanity..” and the white woman who made the initial statement chimed back in, saying, “yes! a multiplicitous humanity..” again acknowledging the need to not erase the real matter of Black lives.
“What if we didn’t live in racially segregated neighborhoods?”
“What if the Mayor stayed and saw the plays?”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza had come on stage before the plays began, to praise Joe and Dominic, and to honor them both with citations. Mayor Elorza said that the arts stir our souls, and that with this theater work, in particular, we are stirred to action to create the city that we envision. However, he left without seeing the plays, without having the true opportunity to have his soul stirred by those who live in the city he governs, which seemed to upset some of the actors and theater-goers.
“What if we saw different colors as a beautiful rainbow?”
“What if what happened here tonight, happened everywhere?
I am grateful to live in a city where people are invested in using the arts to promote social change, to face the difficult questions, the difficult truths. The Every 28 Hours Plays and the Our Response Plays do just that.
My what if is: What if we surprised James Baldwin and as white people looked in the mirror and realized the horrors of what we’ve done, and did the work to undo it?
What is your what if?
For gorgeous photos of the two nights of plays, please visit talented photographer and blogger, Erin X. Smither’s blog: