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The Trayvon Factor

Playwrights and theatres are revisiting issues of race onstage in the wake of the Martin-Zimmerman verdict

By Janice C. Simpson

Keith Josef Adkins was on his way to the opening-night party for Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he got a text message with the news: A Florida jury had acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

In the 17 months between Martin’s death and the jury’s verdict, the case of the overzealous neighborhood-watch volunteer and the 17-year-old, hoodie-wearing black teenager (who had been visiting his father’s fiancée in the gated Florida community that Zimmerman was guarding) had sparked a national debate about stand-your-ground defense laws, racial profiling, white privilege and other hot-button issues. And Adkins, co-founder and artistic director of the New Black Fest, a New York City–based theatre festival, was so upset by the outcome that he skipped the party and went home.

Days later, still struggling to sort out his feelings of rage, disappointment and confusion, Adkins decided to look for solace and answers where he’d always found them: in the theatre.

“Theatre is one of the few public forums in which people can engage and have conversation and feel comfortable and feel protected,” Adkins says. A playwright himself, he knew he didn’t want to put the burden of responding to the case on the shoulders of just one writer. “I just felt, ‘Let me find writers whom I know are from diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives,’” he recalls thinking. “That way the conversation can be wide.”

Adkins e-mailed six playwrights he knew personally or by reputation and asked if each would write a 10-minute play exploring issues that the Martin-Zimmerman case had raised. The count-me-in responses came back almost immediately.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” says Dan O’Brien, who won the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History for his play The Body of an American, a docudrama about the photographer who took the Pulitzer-winning picture of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. Adds O’Brien, “I’m very excited by trying to bring theatre and poetry closer to things that are actually happening right now and affecting lots of people.”

Encouraged by such responses, Adkins went on to reach out to some 10 theatre companies he’d worked with over the years and asked if each would stage an evening of the Martin-Zimmerman plays in some form. Among those expressing interest were some heavy hitters—the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Center Stage in Baltimore, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and the National Black Theatre in New York. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan quickly nabbed the right to present the package’s world premiere and scheduled a reading for Dec. 5.

Meanwhile, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., signaled its strong support for the project by scheduling its reading of the plays for Feb. 5, the date that would have been Trayvon Martin’s 19th birthday. The reading will also serve as a thematic scene-setter for the production opening five days later of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s prodigiously titled We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, a sly look at the tensions that surface when an integrated group of actors rehearse a play about a German act of genocide against an African tribe.

Like Drury, the playwrights who signed on to Adkins’s project—its formal title is “Facing Our Truth: Ten-Minute Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege”—are mainly in their thirties and forties, part of the post–Civil Rights Era generation that is redefining the discussion of race in the American theatre. Some, like Dominique Morisseau, whose play Detroit ’67 is the first in a planned trilogy about that troubled city, are known for their intentionally political work. Others, like A. Rey Pamatmat, author of Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, a coming-of-age tale about two kids left to fend for themselves by their widowed father, prefer to deal less overtly with the issue of race, even while still proudly reflecting their ethnic heritage.

The Trayvon project encompasses African-American writers like Marcus Gardley and Morisseau, but also the Filipino-American Pamatmat; the Lebanese-American playwright Mona Mansour and her writing partner Tala Manassah, whose parents are Palestinian; and white playwrights Winter Miller and Dan O’Brien, who recruited the Latin-music Grammy winner Quetzal Flores to collaborate on a sung-through version of the encounter between Martin and Zimmerman.

Nearly all of the playwrights have been aided in their artistic explorations of the race issue by the proliferating number of workshops, seminars, fellowships and residencies aimed at developing works by playwrights of color and those from other underrepresented communities. And all are committed to the idea that theatre may be the place best suited for the kind of honest discussions about race that, even when a black man is in the White House, the nation is still struggling to have.

“Like no other form, theatre definitely promotes dialogue,” says Morisseau. “It puts us all in a room together, so we’re not just showing the work—we’re also opening communication around the issues that the work stirred up.”

Of course, the idea of playwrights serving as interlocutors between society and its most perplexing issues is as old as theatre itself. “I mean, even the Greeks at the beginning did it,” says Gardley, whose plays about lesser-known incidents in African-American history have drawn comparisons to the work of August Wilson. “They were raising some big questions about society, and people went to see those shows and pulled their hair and screamed to the gods. It was a religious experience. Theatre, when it can, should ask the big questions.”

But today, 50 years after the March on Washington, the big questions about race in America are no longer just a black and white matter. It’s worth noting that Barack Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng is part Indonesian and married to a man of Malaysian-Chinese descent. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s wife Columba is Mexican-born. George Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian. The theatrical conversation around the subject has broadened as well and now includes writers from Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern backgrounds. There is also growing diversity within the ranks of black playwrights, who now count among their numbers the children of immigrants recently arrived from Africa, the Caribbean, and even parts of Europe, with different stories to tell than those shaped by U.S. slavery and its legacy.

Other playwrights in this new generation are the children of the growing number of interracial marriages in this country, or were raised in homes with adoptive parents of different races, or were white kids who grew up listening to hip-hop and socializing and dating across color lines—all of which makes for still other stories with differing but still informed perspectives on race.

As a result, today’s race-themed plays have become more complex and are as diverse—in style as well as content—as the people who are creating them. “You have a new generation of people who don’t have the same baggage as the generation before them,” says Morisseau.

Which may explain why the central issue in Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, for instance, isn’t race but the class dynamics between the members of an affluent African-American family and the daughter of the black woman who has been their longtime housekeeper. Similarly, although the recent MacArthur “genius grant” winner Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy is set in an all-black boarding school that prides itself on turning out young men who will be seen as a credit to their race, the play’s major conflict is how the school deals with the homosexual awakening of one of its star students.

Some of these new works, direct descendants of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s 1986 satire that included a send-up of A Raisin in the Sun, are bitingly funny, upending old racial stereotypes and using them for their own ironic purposes—as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Neighbors does with its black family, whose members include Sambo, Topsy and other caricatures, all of whom wear blackface.

“The generation of black playwrights that is writing now, like Jacobs-Jenkins, has an incredible, ironic sense of humor about race,” says Jocelyn Prince, Woolly Mammoth’s connectivity director. “And that’s great, because it makes the issue more accessible to audiences and can take the edge off a little bit in terms of being able to really hear and see and deal with these difficult issues.”

Other young playwrights are casting their nets wide and writing plays with characters that span the racial spectrum. Black, Hispanic and South Asian wrestlers mix it up in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Kristoffer Diaz’s comic meditation on racial identity and assimilation. The lonely souls seeking companionship on the Internet in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful are Asian, black, Hispanic and white. And playwright Greg Kalleres pokes good-natured fun at both blacks and whites in Honky, a comedy about a Buppie ad man who has to market high-priced sneakers to white suburban teens seeking a black ghetto experience.

“That sense of multiculturalism is also something that is a little new and very interesting,” says Prince. “The sense that we’re all in this together, and we all play a role in the issue of race, means that it is not just the responsibility of black people and it’s not just the responsibility of white people to address this issue. We are all in this society together.”

Prince’s point is undeniable, but what the Trayvon Martin case reminds us—and what makes the conversation about race freshly painful—is the extent to which the lives and the potential of young black men in this country are still systematically devalued, the way they are automatically seen as a threat, and the fact they they are seen, in some terrible sense, as disposable. For all its multicultural valences, the Trayvon project faces that old, very peculiarly American wound that seems to keep reopening.

This is true even if today’s hard conversations about race are less about the overt racism of assuming that a black kid in a hoodie is up to no good, and more about the subtle biases that come out when people talk about, say, the gentrification of long-standing black neighborhoods, which is at the heart of the second act of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park; or the concept of racial privilege examined in Jeff Talbott’s The Submission, in which a white writer submits a play about a black family under a pseudonym because he thinks the judges will consider the work more authentic if it’s been written by an African American.

This kind of wider discussion of all these issues holds the potential to bring new audiences into the theatre. The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s fanciful reimagining of the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, was among the top 10 most-produced plays of the 2012–13 season in U.S. theatres, and was the second-highest-grossing production in the 50-year history of Center Stage when it played there last season. “When we find the right play—one that is both culturally specific and universal—the African-American single-ticket audience comes out en masse,” says Kwame Kwei-Armah, the company’s artistic director.

And the critical appreciation for these works is growing as well. Four of the last five Pulitzer-winners for drama—Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, Clybourne Park, Water by the Spoonful and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced—have dealt, in one way or another, with the subject of race.

But both playwrights and theatre administrators acknowledge that some theatregoers, even those now accustomed to historical takes on racism in the works of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, may feel uncomfortable with plays that take on more contemporary and potentially contentious subjects such as those raised by the Martin case. That’s why, they say, post-show discussions and other opportunities for audience members to express their own feelings on these issues are an essential part of not only the theatre’s conversation about race, but the broader national one as well.

“Despite the fact that we pride ourselves on being a so-called thriving democracy, we don’t have space where people sit and talk to each other and engage in ideas,” says Tala Manassah. “So I really see the talkbacks as being an integral and radical, in the best sense of the word, part of that process. I don’t think the process is valuable without that, to tell you the truth.”

Center Stage is so committed to this form of participatory theatre that it went so far as to subtitle its 50th-anniversary season “Welcome to the Conversation.” Its productions for the year included Norris’s Clybourne Park and Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place, which, like the Norris play, was inspired by Hansberry’s classic.

Kwei-Armah, a black Brit whose parents were born in Grenada, had been unhappy with the portrayal of black men in Clybourne Park and so wrote his own version of what might have happened to Hansberry’s characters. He says he delighted in the comments audience members made about both plays in post-show discussions, even when people disagreed with his point of view. “The debates were tremendous,” Kwei-Armah says. “If you get the art right, people will love that, and then they’ll start talking about it. That’s far better than people just applauding and saying thank you very much.”

Of course, it isn’t easy for most people to stand up in a room full of strangers and bare their souls about race. Even people who know one another can flinch at revealing such fears, prejudices and resentments to one another.

The actor Russell G. Jones, a longtime member of Off-Broadway’s LAByrinth Theater Company, came face-to-face with that a couple of years ago. He recalls how during the company’s annual retreat, he proposed a series of improvisations for a play he was writing that challenged the notion of a post-racial America. “From the get-go, it was just tense in the room,” he says. “One company member I’ve known for a long time, he was just like, ‘What are we doing? What is this about? Why are we doing this?’”

Jones says he persuaded his colleagues to continue with the workshop and by the end of the second day, the member who had questioned the exercise had come around. “I realize that I’m carrying around a lot more of the things that I dislike about my parents’ thinking about race than I’m comfortable with,” Jones recalls him saying. “And I just need to tell you that you really opened up my awareness of myself around this subject.”

Few theatres have the time or resources to achieve those kinds of epiphanies in their discussion sessions, but an increasing number believe that a good talkback moderator can jumpstart the process. “Moderating is a huge component to these very important talkbacks,” Morisseau points out.

She recalls a session she moderated following a performance of her play Detroit ’67, in which audience members spoke honestly about their feelings on “the changing demographics of a city, what perpetuates white flight, and how rebellion happens when a community feels brutalized.” There may have been some tension, Morisseau concedes, but, she adds, “It wasn’t unhealthy tension. It felt like it opened up a safe space for everyone to really hear each other and listen.”

Woolly Mammoth’s Prince is both a trained dramaturg and a veteran community organizer who worked with the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and the 2008 Obama campaign. In August, she hosted “From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: A Town Hall Meeting on Black Bodies and American Racism.” It drew about 100 people from the community—some Woolly regulars, others recruited by the Washington Peace Center and the African Continuum Theatre Company, co-sponsors of the event. With Prince’s guidance, the participants compared the murders of Martin and Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. They then expressed their feelings about the trials that acquitted the men who had killed both youths and proposed measures that might be taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

The majority of the people drawn to the event shared an outrage over the verdict, but to make sure that everyone felt safe about voicing their opinions, Prince set some ground rules: Don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking; listen actively rather than thinking about the next thing you want to say; assume the good intentions of everyone here; don’t attack anyone in the room.

“It’s okay to see a play and be upset, because that’s part of what theatre is,” she says. “The responsibility that theatres have is to create a safe and protective space for that conversation to happen.”

No good-behavior reminders were needed when a group of 50 or so theatre professionals and friends gathered on the first Friday in October at the Lark Play Development Center in Manhattan for the first reading of the six works in Adkins’s Trayvon Martin project. The plays resisted clichés and their events unfolded in sometimes unexpected ways. The one common element was the presence of, or reference to, a hoodie.

The 10-minute plays included tragic situations in which the actions of young black men were fatally misunderstood; laugh-out-loud satires about other racial misconceptions; and an a cappella version of a mini-folk-opera about the night of the shooting. Audience members responded enthusiastically, with empathetic sighs following the most dramatic moments, bursts of laughter at the one-liners and nods of agreement throughout.

But things got quiet when Adkins opened the floor for questions and comments after the last piece had ended and the racially diverse audience and actors had applauded one another. There were a few polite questions about securing rights to the plays and about Adkins’s request that anyone producing them include a community-engagement component. Five of the playwrights were on hand, and someone asked about their process in crafting the plays.

But it wasn’t until the sixth question that someone finally broached the subject of the plays and their mission. “What is the vision here? What is the goal?” the questioner asked. Adkins had an answer ready. “I just want to encourage conversation,” he said, “and have that go wherever it wants to go.”

Janice C. Simpson is co-director of the arts journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the author of the theatre blog Broadway & Me.