“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was one of my first theatre homes. They taught me how to be a dramaturg, a craft which has served me well these past eight years. I have attended nearly every single production. I have stood in praise and enthusiasm of their programming, which reflects a commitment to diversity of form, gender, race, ability and sexual orientation. But I have never been more proud to be affiliated with them than I was this past Friday night when I took part in the town hall event.
From the beginning, there was an immediate sense that folks needed to be a part of this conversation. They needed a safe, but charged place to engage and process, to validate and confront all of what they had been feeling in response to the recent verdict in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. With the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington upon us, now was the time for civic action and leadership. Woolly Mammoth took that the helm in our theatre community and executed it brilliantly.
When I walked into the theatre, the energy of the room was palpable. It was hungry, passionate and urgent. There was a radiant sense of expectation, curiosity, and hope. Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Artistic Director) and Jocelyn Prince (Woolly Connectivity Director and Town Hall Facilitator) welcomed the panelists, facilitators, volunteers and more than 100 guests. We were invited to channel what we were feeling into action and change for the betterment of our society. We were encouraged to engage in an honest, open, and challenging conversation with local activists, academics, artists, policy makers and each member in the audience.
In preparation for our convening, Jocelyn Prince worked with civic engagement expert, Michael Rohd, to shape our Goals and Rules for the evening:
Woolly Mammoth Town Hall Goals
- Process thoughts and emotions
- Hear from local activists and experts
- Connect with other concerned citizens in DC
- Collaborate on imagining and brainstorming some action steps
Woolly Mammoth Town Hall Rules
- We don’t interrupt when someone is speaking
- We try to listen actively, rather than think about the next thing we are going to say
- We assume the good intentions of everyone here
- We are conscious of the time we spend speaking, so that as many people as possible have the chance to express themselves.
- We do not attack anyone in the room
- We take responsibility for monitoring our own well-being. If we feel heated or stressed by the conversation- we take a break, and try to channel our feelings in a productive way
Once these rules and goals were agreed upon, we were then led in an Interfaith Prayer by Reverend Carolyn Boyd, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. Her prayer served as a reminder that we have come together in the service of work that is greater than us. Click here to her powerful, healing and uplifting words.
Then, poet and Woolly Claque Member, Ray Crawford delivered his beautiful, raw and captivating poem, Worthless. His poem was a reminder of how art can help us to contextualize an otherwise painful, disturbing and inexplicable experience.
Next, Jocelyn facilitated the discussion with panelists: Reverend Carolyn Boyd, Minister of Organizational Development at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ; Louisa Davis, activist and Adjunct Professor of Religion and Ethics at Montgomery College; Jessica Frances Dukes, Woolly Company Member; Dr. Dennis B. Rogers, Lecturer in the Department of History and Government at Bowie State University; Gabriel Rojo, Site Manager, Identity Youth, Inc.; and Dawn Ursula, Woolly Company Member (and cast member in Woolly’s production of We Are Proud to Present…)
These were the questions that were asked and the responses that really resonated:
How has the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial impacted you as a minister/activist/theater artist/academic? As a citizen? As a human being?
- Some on the panel were not surprised, but deeply disappointed.
- Many had watched the entire trial. One panelist said that he held his breath through the verdict, hoping for a different outcome, but not at all surprised by how it played out.
- For one panelist, young black men suddenly looked different. She explained that they looked like deer. Like deer you would see on the side of the road. Beautiful, graceful targets. You know they should be there, but you worry for their safety. Will the make it home alright?
- Another panelist shared, quite candidly, that the verdict, the entire experience, could have made her doubt or question God. To see young Black men made invisible, emasculated and disempowered, but instead the outpour of emotions gave her hope.
How would you situate the Trayvon Martin trail and verdict (as well as the ongoing national actions and dialogues in response to the verdict) within the context of the civil rights movement? Is there a linkage that you would draw between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin?
- One panelist shared that this is an example of violence being sanctioned. It brought to mind the history of lynching in this country. Ida B. Well was writing about lynching in the late 1800s, Lynch Law in America. It’s a shame that we’re still seeing examples of it today.
- Another panelist drew a direct correlation between Till and Martin and concluded that what happened to them is a key part of the race problem in this country. In the 1950s and 60s, the violence against Blacks was overt. Now, it’s structural. More and more young Black men are dying because there is a system in place to manifest it. In this context, structural violence was defined as violence that happens due to racism, unjust laws, and systemic violence that are embedded in social norms.
- Another panelist cautioned us against making what happened to Trayvon Martin personal. What happened wasn’t specific to George Zimmerman nor was it an isolated incident. It is directly related to the legal system in our country. How can we take back the legal system?
- A panelist then spoke about our attitudes about race. What we have here, and in many of these cases, are young Black men who were where they were supposed to be, but our attitudes about race say that these young men have no right to be where they were. Whites can judge Black people out of place, but there are no checks in place to correct Whites of this presumption.
- There was a call to acknowledge and hold accountable the role of the news and other media outlets in informing attitude of race.
- Then two truths were shared: (1.) Ghetto and thug is a condition, not a state of mind and (2.) Stand Your Ground addresses the idea of property being protected. In Emmitt Till’s murder, the property being protected was a white woman. In Trayvon Martin’s murder, the property being protected was George Zimmerman’s white neighborhood. And the room erupted.
What implications do the case and verdict have for ongoing issues in the DC community (racial profiling, police brutality, criminalization of marijuana, race relations, prison and military industrial complex, etc)? What role can DC citizens play in changing the societal conditions that contributed to the death of Trayvon and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?
- A panelist observed that it’s easy in D.C. to avoid the other. We have pockets of communities that are still segregated. We don’t have to cross paths.
- A number of panelists asked: How do we keep this conversation going? How do we not hand this over to someone else to take care of? When it’s so hard and painful to talk about race, how do I engage in a conversation without offending, but still address the issue?
- In response, the panelists shared: We need more events like this one. We have to be more actively engaged and involved. We have to not be afraid. We need to have a serious conversation about the role, power and impact of white allies. We need to unify our movement so that we have synergy.
- A panelist advised us that in her anti-racism work, she advised us all to: (1.) STOP and listen to people who know, (2.) DROP the pretense that everything is fine, and (3.) ROLL with people, get into the groove to feel what’s going on.
- Another panelist urged us to hold business leaders and politicians accountable. We have to stop the prison-to-school pipeline and get guns out of the hands of ordinary citizens.
- A panelist encouraged us to use our economic power and bring back the Boycotts. Also, we need to challenge white privilege and recognize that the oppressed will also oppress and work against this cycle.
- It was acknowledged that we speak a language that divides us and that we need to find new language. Fortunately, Theatre Communications Group’s Diversity Institute is working with Diversity Consultant, Carmen Morgan, to provide these resources to the theatre community.
Towards the end of the panel discussion, an interesting, profound and shattering point was raised about our collective understanding of Race: Success is about moving toward whiteness. This bears repeating (and perhaps even saying aloud): Success is about moving towards whiteness. There is a disturbing, frightening and undeniable truth to this statement that I feel resonating in conversations around the risk of producing plays by playwrights of color.
From there, we had a brief group conversation where the audience had an opportunity to ask questions and share their own thoughts. What I found most valuable in this discussion was the sharing of essays, books and online resources:
- Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
- How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev
- How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity by Charles A. Gallagher Race and the Power of Illusion – PBS Series
- Feminist Crunk Collective - website
From there, we broke out into smaller sessions for deeper investigation of these issues. We were tasked with identifying potential next steps and action plans for our own community. We were reminded to be patient, open, and generous with ourselves and others.
Academics (Ray Crawford Jr.)
- The responsibility of Academia is one of intervention. We are tasked in our scholarship to hold the counter discourse.
- We need to be working with parents to engage with children.
- What is the responsibility of an academic institution to its community? It’s interesting to consider that a college like Howard University, which is a historically Black college, is situated in an ever changing community, which is now largely white.
- Reality check: School is the most segregated place outside of church.
- Woolly must continue to host these conversations.
- Perhaps theatre can have flash mob performances that bring scenes from upcoming plays into neighborhoods. That way people can know about the plays and see how they relate to what is happening right now in their lives and communities.
- Ultimately, we have to move beyond how we feel about race so that we can meet each other as human beings.
Activists and Policy Makers (Kymone Freeman)
- Young Black boy and men are afraid of the police.
- The outcry is against the sense of morality and injustice of the murder.
- There is a growing sense of youth apathy, which is directly related to economic disparity.
- All politics is local. What are we in D.C. going to do about the Living Wage Bill? Wal-Mart wants to be a part of D.C., but it is no secret that they are the largest distributor of ammunition and guns.
- We cannot forget the value of the drop in the bucket.
- We cannot destroy ourselves arguing over the greater value of loss be it white on black crime or black on black crime. If a life is lost in a senseless and unjust manner, then it has to stop.
- We were reminded of the key talking points for Saturday’s March on Washington, appropriately titled: “National Action to Realize the Dream March”: Jobs & the Economy, Voting Rights, Workers’ Rights, Criminal Justice Issues, Stand Your Ground Laws & Gun Violence, Women’s Rights, Immigration, LGBT Equality, Environmental Justice, and Youth.
Artists and Arts Workers (Jacqueline E. Lawton)
- Theater companies and artists need to plays and program community engagement events that help to foster dialogue. They need to go to the young people. Bring them to the theatre/to the program. Then step back and allow them the space to experience the work without judgment, protection or interference.
- We have the resources to share with young people. We need to make it available to them and give them a reason to come back. But we also need to remember that the youth are organizing movements.
- We need to acknowledge that there are some conversations that we can’t be a part of and that there some things you can’t tell someone else about themselves or their culture.
- When we’re not speaking the other person’s language, it will sound like screaming.
- We need to remember that civility and subversion are tools to build a movement. We need to understand when to modulate behavior and recognize that there is a range of normal behavior. By practicing normal behaving we are not compromising ourselves or our truth. More often than not, we are allowing ourselves to be heard.
- As artists, we have to stay open, engage with the youth in our lives. Being an artist does not negate your role as a citizen.
- Ask yourself, what is the purpose of your life? What are you doing of value towards the betterment of your community?
- How do we deal with other people of color who are not outraged? There seems to be a whole generation that is condition to not see that this is a problem and that they deserve better. In response, perhaps these folks do care, but they may not be in a situation or space to be able to share what they are feeling.
- Remember that artists are creators of propaganda. We have to know the meaning behind the work we are creating.
- Where are our empowering figures? The prominent leaders, but also those working on a grassroots level? How are we honoring them?
- Where are the stories that tell of how you got to where you are, so that others don't feel so alone in their journeys and can see that the path to success isn’t straight or overnight?
- How do we talk to our youth about race without continuing the oppressive conversation?
- How do we empower our young men to see their place, relevance and to remember that they came from kings and queens?
- Who is telling our stories? How are these stories framed?
- There is a difference between your rights and your needs. There is a time and a place to exercise your rights and demand your needs. Be aware of the impact in your actions.
- You can’t change your lottery, but you can understand your legacy.
- How do we come together with a shared purpose that doesn’t negate each other’s individual experience? How does a white woman fighting the good fight in the feminist movement come to this conversation about race?
- There are a lot of things to be angry about. There is a need to produce angry art. We must learn how to process and shift that anger to passion so that the anger is well placed. Remember anger is the lowest vibration. Love is the most powerful. The law of attraction brings together common energies. We need to learn how to move from a place of love so that our work.
Youth and Youth Workers (Goldie Deane)
- After the George Zimmerman Verdict was announced, a young Black man turned to his father and said, “They gave them permission to kill me.”
- There is an urgency to address racism and breaking it down for young people to digest.
- How do we handle cross generational conversations?
- How do we address Black maleness and not just racism? How do we address status, socioeconomics and education for young Black men?
- There is a self-perceived notion that status undercuts racism and it simply doesn’t.
- How do we equip our young people with the ability to defend themselves?
- Allies need to be instrumental in the work. But how do we better define and understand privilege and access?
- There is a rite of passage between youth and manhood that for many Black males is not happening.
- Ultimately, we need to move past feeling angry so that we can move past the barriers of racism.
I’m writing this blog as I listen to the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. So, I will end where we began with an inspiring quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."
More than anything, “the fierce urgency of now” was the real power of the Woolly Mammoth Town Hall event. We all entered the theatre that night for different reasons. We all came from different life experiences. We all have different beliefs for how to solve the problems of systemic racism and injustice. However, we all have a clear understanding that NOW is the time for this work to happen and that we can only achieve great success by coming together as a unified force.