Afterwords Afterthoughts: Black Lives Matter; One Year Later

 

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Written by Ana Martinez, Literary and Public Programs Intern

After our show of Sucker Punch on September 30th, we had a stirring conversation about where we are as a society as we looked back on the last year of extroverted racial tension in this country. We were joined by panelist Nikki Patin and moderator Ashley Roberson who had great insight on this topic. The other two panelists were Maurice Demus and Denzel Love, who play Leon and Troy in the show, respectively.

This was an extremely successful conversation about important topics, where patrons from all backgrounds stayed after the show and felt comfortable speaking up about their opinions and experiences. This led us to think back to a term that we hold dearly in this theater: Civic Dramaturgy. As defined by our Literary Manager here, Isaac Gomez, Civic Dramaturgy is, “a community’s response to the work as it relates to their everyday lives, inspired and buoyed by the art they experienced as a collective.”

It was incredible to see how safe people felt during this conversation, to feel free to say what they felt and express their concerns and ideas. This cross-racial, cross-generational crowd spilled out enough thoughts to stretch this conversation to over an hour! With other talk-back experiences I’ve had, when it comes to the topic of race and discrimination it seems to be that if you’re white you feel yourself to be in this uncomfortable position where you think, “I’m not black… so what am I allowed to say? Is my input even worth sharing? I have no idea how to interject into the conversation without feeling like I’m overstepping some sort of boundary.”

This discussion was nothing like that. This play took the place of a buffer, or even a catalyst for the conversation, if you will. Instead of having to share from personal experience, the audience found themselves being able to use the characters and situations in the play as a tool to talk about real-life issues. The fact that two of the panelists were leads in the show, I think, was also a huge reason as to why patrons felt so comfortable having this discussion. Here they are, having sat down at this theater for the past 2 hours of their lives, and now they get this opportunity to talk about what they just experienced with the people that took them on this journey.

You could tell this was the case by the way they would talk to Maurice or Denzel, and say things like, “Your character could’ve run off with the love of his life and avoided all this grief!” These laid-back comments then lead to deeper conversations. “Why Didn’t he stay with the love of his life? What if she would’ve left him? What if she got bored with him? What would he have done then? Would you give up your chance at success knowing that you might not get another chance because of your skin color?”

The conversation started with people immediately making the connection that the world that Leon and Troy lived in, which takes place in 1980’s London, was painfully similar to the world we live in now. One of the first comments came from a young, white male in the audience that commented how he was made aware of his white privilege in a very specific spot in this play. Troy says the words “I was scared without you,” after Leon leaves him to fend for himself in the middle of a riot with white cops. This young white man shared how that line resonated with him, because he’s never had to feel scared when met with police. He has never felt alone in that way. And to know that other people have felt that solitude really opened his eyes to what’s happening out there.

The conversation then led to how differently Leon and Troy handled the same situation they were in. Denzel compared their characters to Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.

“He’s fighting, but his way of fighting is to be successful.”

Denzel shares his views as to how Leon passively “fights” by making a name for himself.

“I’m not in the papers for busting up some cop, I’m in it because I’m successful at what I’m doing,” Maurice adds on, explaining how his character is trying to help out his community by painting himself in a better light, and in turn, painting his community under that light as well.

Nikki added that this MLK and Malcom X reference correlates with the Flight vs. Fight mentalities. Are you going to avoid the cops and go about your day, or are you going to aggressively fight back and push them out of your way? Another young white man in the audience then pointed out that both characters ended up choosing the “flight” option- Leon stays out of trouble and works to make a name for himself, while Troy flees to America to get away from it.

When Troy gets to America, he still ends up dealing with police brutality. When Leon becomes a famous Boxing Champion, he still gets criticized by the black community and deals with daily racism from everyone, including his trainer Charlie. The same audience member noted that they were back where they started, they didn’t escape anything. One played nice and it got him nothing. The other fought back, fled, and also got nothing.

A young black woman in the audience then added, “They’re forever in a system of exploitation, reinforcing stereotypes within an established system [boxing]. It’s all in this circle. I didn’t see any moment of breaking out.”

A young black man commented about Leon and said something along the lines of, “All you are is a body. Becky [Leon’s love interest] wanted sex, the boxing industry and Charlie were using you to make money, the police were only looking for another black boy to beat up. They were never a person, they were just a body.”

To which then Nikki replied with, “Sometimes there is no transcendence. Sometimes there is no way out.”

Another white audience member said, “The play ends with a defeat. The play still ends with a loss.”

Denzel laughs and retorts, “And I like that! Like you said, it stays in this system. We’re still living in this system.” It ends realistically; the problems of the world don’t get solved in an hour and forty-five minutes. The characters grew and progressed, but society didn’t miraculously get fixed out of nowhere.

Ashley wrapped up the conversation with one last question, “History is constantly repeating itself […] how can we put our history in writing to hopefully end this cycle?”

Denny had a cheerful answer, “I just put the team on my back. I know a lot of people can’t do what I do [i.e. have the opportunity to graduate from college], and I’m gonna represent them […] I’m gonna stay as black as I can! […] I’m gonna be me. If you don’t like my blackness… bye!”

Maurice said, “Being able to talk about this, have these discussions, it’s a start.” He added that it doesn’t matter how big or small the audience may be, what matters is that these discussions keep happening.

Nikki shared a story of how when she first started writing poetry, it was not well-received. The establishment did not want her there but, “I just kept showing up, and that’s how you succeed. I can sit home and cry (which I did sometimes), or I can keep writing. Show up even when they don’t want you to show up.”

But what resonated with me the most out of this entire conversation was what Nikki said about the Malcom X vs. Martin Luther King Jr. argument. She didn’t believe either one was the “right” answer. Physically fighting back will tear you apart, and playing nice and backing down will keep you silent.

“You have to be true to yourself, and that self-respect is really all you have.”

And that is a statement that you could tell hit every single person in that room, no matter the racial background.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Of Race & Riots

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Written by Ana Martinez, Literary and Public Programs Intern

On Saturday September 26th, we had the wonderful opportunity to hear first-hand about Victory Gardens Theater’s production of Sucker Punch from Roy Williams (the playwright) and Dexter Bullard (the director). They provided insight about the process; from creation, to prior productions, to what they hope their work will accomplish.

Together, Roy and Dexter enlightened Saturday night’s audience with insider information on what their journeys have been like, not only as artists but as people in society.

“No blacks.

No Irish.

No dogs.”

 

Roy explains that this was a common saying he would hear while growing up in 1980’s London. He talked about how he was the child of two immigrant parents, who were both a part of the “Windrush Generation” that migrated after World War II.

“I was born in this country, but I was being treated like shit.”

When you hear of his background, there is no doubt why he thought it necessary to write Sucker Punch. The play (having the same backdrop as his adolescence), follows the story of a young, black boxer trying to climb his way to the top. In a time where violent riots sprouted constantly and Margaret Thatcher reigned for eleven years straight, it was difficult to be a black man.

“I recently saw Straight Outta Compton and I thought to myself, ‘I know what that’s       about.’”

Roy recalls what it was like walking down the street and being stopped by police for no reason, and even having those encounters turn violent every once in a while. He remembers feeling a lot of anger and frustration, which was the fuel for the writing process of his play.

He compared himself to the characters in his own creation,

“Sometimes I was Leon, I just wanted to fit in. Sometimes I was Troy and [there was] a   lot of anger [and] lashing out.”

Williams went on to talk about American Culture and compared it to London,

“There seems to be a lot of strong similarities. [They] Seem to be almost sort of parallel.”

He was comparing our tragedies and setting them next to each other. Trayvon Martin to us is Mark Duggan to them. The riots in Ferguson here were the 2011 England Riots over in London. He found these interchangeable devastations between countries and began to explore that.

Roy admitted fearing whether American audiences would understand this play and be able to look past the cultural differences. But when he thought about how tragically similar our worlds have become, he knew this story had the power to cut through any cultural clash.

“There were three big challenges that came with this play:

It’s culturally not American,

the boxing,

and the accents.”

Dexter laughed as he shared his own insecurities with the audience. But he went on to narrate his thought process on shaping this show,

“The audience is not stupid […] we’re gonna do it as is, and we’re gonna make them get   it.”

He expanded, he had an attack plan on how to tackle this play,

“Details is my favorite weapon as an artist.”

For example, there is a scene in the play that takes place on the same night as the Broadwater Farm Riots. Dexter explained that he, along with the VGT dramaturgy team, looked up details about that date; everything down to what the weather was like that night, as that information then educated the costume designs, sound designs, etc., and painted an accurate depiction of that night to the audience.

An audience member asked Roy how he felt about a white man directing his play. Roy expressed his indifference towards the topic,

“That’s not an issue to me, but do you [the director] get it [police brutality,           discrimination, etc.]?”

All Roy hopes for is to have artists who understand the gravity of this reality when his show is being worked on. If the story is being told with respect and with care; the director’s skin tone is an irrelevant piece to the puzzle.

As the night’s discussion was coming to an end, a patron asked Roy what his hopes were, regarding what his play could do to change things in our society. Roy’s reply will stick with me for a very long time:

“It [the play] plants a seed in their head and that’s all I can hope for. Can plays change     the world? Of course they can’t. But they can change people.”

That is why we all are attracted to this art form, is it not? There is no sense in over-romanticizing our powers and saying we can stop hate overnight. But when you know you have impacted a person through your art, that is when your heart is fulfilled. And vice versa: when you share work that fills your heart, that is when you captivate the hearts of others.

 

 

 

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