Recent events of extreme hate crimes and the court decisions on the Freddie Gray trial have encouraged me to repost this article. The presentation was six months ago, however, the discussion remains relevant. I believe this country is ours and the concepts of privilege, racism, and justice must be addressed to propel us forward and heal social and economic wounds. I encourage you to view the short films from the links below.
During the weekend of December 12th and 13th, Centerstage hosted a small production and panel discussion to conclude the theater's CS Digital program. The program commissioned ten American writers to create plays set around the kitchen table, inspired by recent events in communities like Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston. More than half of these plays were filmed guerilla-style in public areas that are considered "pivotal locations" across the country.
According to Kwame Kwei-Armah, the program's executive director, the difference between film and theater is metaphor. Theater has a purpose to use metaphor through the ages. Every location that was chosen to shoot the brief plays served has a symbol for not only the event that happened there, but the broader context. For example, in "Middle of the Night" by Lydia R. Diamond, producers filmed the eight minute play in Ferguson, Missouri at night outside of community retail shops which appeared to be damaged from protests earlier this year. The characters are two white men, one young, one older. Their conversation takes place around a kitchen table over coffee. It is not their clothing, but the glimpse of a police officer hat placed on the table that shows viewers who the men are and why they are having a discussion about shooting a black man. It is later revealed the man was unarmed. The metaphors appear through lighting, placement and character profiles. Those with an artful mind could draw from this play that policing is a nightmare, or unlawful decision making is underground, or white men are dark. You can view the play here.
Centerstage itself serves as a metaphor for the meeting of educators, activists and "caring individuals" of the city. The stage is the conduit for social issues that are fraught with debates, news reports and blasts on new media outlets. Digital technology and the media are at the center; the center is the screens of hand-held devices and social media sites. The production and panel was held in one of the venue's smaller rooms with the seating arranged in the shape of a diamond. Each side of the audience faced a screen behind another side of viewers. Everyone watched plays behind someone's back, a metaphor of how our realities can differ greatly and appear differently to others while happening simultaneously.
Four of the screen plays were performed live prior to the discussion panel. Between three of the performances Kwame introduced two of the program's instrumental members, Derrick Sanders and Hana Sharif. In response to Kwame's original request to have him on the team as director, Derrick said, "I usually say yes to crazy ideas."
Derrick says the program's success came partially from "working with individuals who get it. It makes prepping for something you cannot prep for feasible."
Filming these meaningful pieces weren't only provocative in a social sense, but a literal sense. The team did not acquire permits before filming and were forced shut down on several occasions by local police. Hana jokingly spoke about the bail money she had set aside in the event any or all of them were arrested. Between curious bystanders and unlawful occupation of space, the team was successful in creating short plays that will resonate with generations to come.
The panel was hosted by Marc Steiner, host of The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA. Panelists included, Jameta Barlow a psychologist, Joshua Smith, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and Lester Spence, a Baltimore activist.
The discussion kicked off with a loaded question: What has racism done to us?
Despite the depth of such a question, the panelist answered tactfully with brief answers, one of them being trauma. "Black people suffer from a form a post traumatic stress disorder resulting from centuries of oppression. And white people suffer from a post-oppressor disorder," says Joshua Smith. Smith supports his comments by referencing reality TV and shows that major networks choose to produce.
Jameta Barlow supported Smith's statement by adding that trauma is often generational and assigned differently according to gender and class. Barlow made a second point: the ignorance of privilege. "We need to accept the privileges we have as men, as a white person, as able-bodied people." The word privilege seems to act as a barrier to discussions we need to have in order to address issues that stunt our country's progression. If people are aware of their individual privileges, then awareness is given to a lack thereof.
Lester Spencer shed light on our governmental structures that indirectly promote injustice. He uses the example of Ferguson having more than 20 percent of its revenue come from law enforcement. "Even if you aware of privilege, aware of trauma, none of it matters because they gotta make the [money]." He adds that art is powerful in bringing about change, but unfortunately it ignores institutional framework and rhetoric that is the cause for social injustice.
With additional questions from the host and a few comments from the audience, the discussion became one of honesty and passion.
Centerstage is committed to connecting Baltimore audiences to the world beyond Baltimore, with global artists that produce work for conversation, insight and performance (Centerstage.com).
Six of the plays from "My America Too" can be viewed on Centerstage's website here.