From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: A Town Hall Meeting on Black Bodies and American Racism
“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
Woolly Mammoth Town Hall Rules
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?
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?
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?
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:
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.)
Activists and Policy Makers (Kymone Freeman)
Artists and Arts Workers (Jacqueline E. Lawton)
Youth and Youth Workers (Goldie Deane)
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.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!