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.