#Trayvon: The Artist Response, Role and Responsibility

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in Activism

Post image for #Trayvon: The Artist Response, Role and Responsibility

(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Trayvon Martin’s death, the trial and verdict, and the subsequent cultural response to those events. This series grew out of a series of discussion between myself, our Diversity & Inclusion salon curator Jacqueline E. Lawton, The New Black Fest’s artistic director Keith Josef Adkins and TCG’s Director of Communications & Conferences Dafina McMillan. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

GUS SCHULENBURG: How has the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial impacted you as a theatre artist? As a citizen? As a human being?

JACQUELINE LAWTON: As a theatre artist, it has cemented my desire to use each and every play that I write as a tool for social justice and change. Otherwise, the time and words were wasted. As a citizen, I am keenly aware that the struggle for civil rights is as much needed now as it ever was. What’s more, it is my duty, so long as I am alive on this earth, to do everything in my power to promote social awareness, race consciousness and compassion. I want to bring people together around these issues and encourage dialogue that moves us to a place of understanding, appreciation and respect for difference.  As a human being, to be perfectly honest, I feel quite broken. Gus, if I wanted to have children, they would be brown. God help me, if they are boys. And there’s nothing, I can do to keep them safe … to keep them beyond the reaches of racism.

GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to that outcome?

JL: At first, it was very difficult for me to respond. All I could think about was my brother and how this could have been him. I remembered the conversations my father would have with him about his behavior and attitude in the presence of whites. We were raised in East Texas … not too far from where, in 1999, James Byrd Jr. was beaten, chained by his ankles to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged to his death for more than two miles.  Instead of responding, I read a lot of what was being written and listened to what was being said. I shared what resonated deeply with me on Twitter and Facebook. I connected with friends. The next morning in a fit of tears, I wrote a poem called, On the Morning After Not Guilty.

I’m trying to respond …
But a gunshot and shouts of no justice, no peace ring in my ears.

I’m trying to respond to what has happened to Trayvon Martin …
to his family …
to the mothers of boys born with brown skin …
to each of us across this nation.
But a gunshot and shouts of no justice, no peace ring in my ears.

I’m trying to respond to the fact that when I see young boys with brown skin on the street, on the metro, in the grocery store and in the classroom, I silently pray this prayer:
Bless you, stay safe, keep your cool, and may you live long enough to see your grandchildren and a time when strangers don’t silently pray this prayer.
But a gunshot and shouts of no justice, no peace ring in my ears.

I’m trying to respond without remembering the cautionary words my mother and father shared with my brother when they taught him that his actions, words, glance and gaze could get him killed … not just for their intent, but for his brown skin.
But a gunshot and shouts of no justice, no peace ring in my ears.

I’m trying to respond without tears of pain, sorrow and disappointment to this egregious crime and miscarriage of justice.
But a gunshot and shouts of no justice, no peace ring in my ears.

I’m trying to respond in a way that moves this nation forward.
But a gunshot and shouts of no justice, no peace ring in my ears.

I’m trying to respond …

But even that wasn’t enough…

GS: How have you engaged, or will you engage, with those who feel differently about that outcome?

JL: Yes, I have and am happy to continue doing so. Out of the blue, a woman I went to middle and high school with contacted me on Facebook. She accused me of hate mongering by sharing the articles and said that the only way race relations would improve in this country is if African Americans were taught not to make a distinction between the races. She said a number of other things as well and here this is what I wrote in response:

  1. Awareness, acknowledgment, understanding, celebration and support of the complexities of race, culture, gender, and sexuality matter a great deal to me.
  2. I don’t remember much of our interactions in middle and high school, but I recall that you were one of a handful of people who did NOT call me the N-word. I appreciated that then and I do now.
  3. On behalf of your students, I hope that you will re-read these articles, which are speaking out against acts of institutional racism and not just at white people, and consider their perspectives alongside your own. They are essential and must be heard. Racism is a systemic issue.
  4. As a racially conscious, socially aware advocate of freedom, justice and equality, I must stay informed on these issues, however, challenging and complicated they may be to hear, read and process. I use my Facebook as an extension of my professional work, which is why these articles and others are posted here. I understand if you need to hide my posts or remove me as a Friend.
  5. We don’t have White History Month or an Ivory magazine or a White Television Network, because the world at large caters to whiteness. We need Black History Month, Ebony Magazine, and Black Entertainment Network (and others) as a way to promote, educate and allow for diversity and inclusion. However well-intentioned and however much you and I both would love to live in a world where such markers aren’t necessary for respect of others, the insensitivity of your statements are staggering.
  6. Unfortunately, racism won’t end because black children are raised differently as you suggest. That’s not how racism works. Black children are raised with an awareness of how the world at large views them for survival. They must be educated and informed in order to survive. The onus of change is on the privileged class.

Then I went on to share a very personal story that I haven’t shared with anyone in a very long time:

I remember once in 6th grade, when a mutual “friend” and her crew walked over to me after I had taken a drink from the water fountain. This friend said to me, “You know there was a time when you couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain as us.” I looked at her and said, “Yes, I remember. My parents told me about that.” Then she said, ” Don’t you wish you were white? Don’t you think it would be easier?” Now, as much as I knew it would be easier, I didn’t want to give her that truth. Instead, I said, “I want to be white as much as you want to be black.” The look of horror and disgust on her face taught me everything I needed to know about issues of race in America.

We exchanged another round of emails and I responded with the following:

  1. Privilege has to do with race, class and gender based access and denial of opportunities and social mobility. As someone with all of the markers you describe (white, heterosexual, Christian and middle class), you are indeed in a place of privilege and you were before you worked hard for what you have. In certain circles, I too am in a place of privilege as a highly intelligent, overly educated, heterosexual, and successful woman. But those circles are much smaller and that’s part of what defines privilege.
    SIDENOTE: If all you ever have to do in life is prove that you worked hard to have what you have (and that is something we all have to do owing to an ugly thing called envy), you are fortunate indeed. As a woman, we share a certain bias made against us (!) and being a single mother is quite the challenge.
    However, the assumption readily made against me is that of fear, murderer, thief, and ignorance. I cannot walk in my predominantly white, upper class neighborhood (Capitol Hill proper, not extended) that I’ve lived in for 7 years without someone clutching their purse or checking their wallet or looking back at me in fear as I’m walking behind them on my way home. When that’s not happening, I’m ignored completely. White men will hold open doors or allow entrance onto the metro for every white woman in a line except for me and the other black women standing next to me.
  2. Efforts of racial equality have been in effect since the abolitionist movement. The Civil War was an advancement marred by Jim Crow statutes. Major improvements were made in the 1960s on paper (Civil Rights movement and legislation), in the 1970s with Black Power (social mores), and in the 1980/90s in hiring practices (affirmative action and quotas). We can mark recent continued efforts of diversity and inclusion in mass media, film and television, but for every advancement our school-to-prison pipeline shows the improvement to be topical. The dominant prevalence of Black culture in music, fashion and social behavior has to do with it appealing to white consumers. Mind you, this has always been the case, but we are nowhere near parity.
  3. Again, understanding comes from dialogue: smart, challenging, diligent, informed and urgent dialogue. Ugly things will come up in such discussions, but that doesn’t mean they’ve failed. That usually means truth is being shared.
  4. While these articles portray an honest and negative aspect of what it is to be Black in this country, they are meant to instigate dialogue. The people writing them bravely positioned themselves in the context of a crime and travesty that happens so often and bears little hope of abating. Instead of reading the articles and assuming hate mongering and then railing against me or others in anger, a more productive approach would have been to ask me my point of entry into them: “What about these articles resonates so deeply with you?”Mind you, I understand and appreciate this impulse. But as teachers, we are in a powerful position to impact minds and behavior. When we are responsible for the future of others, we have to take twenty steps back on these issues, work against such assumptions and reach out for deeper, thorough and honest discussion.
  5. As for what occurred that night, this goes much deeper than if Zimmerman had not gotten out of that car. He executed vigilante justice and was a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. What’s more, the state of Florida, the justice system and the prevailing thought in this country that black men are criminals gave him permission to do what he did…to do what he said in an interview was God ordained. If he had not racially profiled Trayvon Martin, as he had done some 46 other black males previously, then this wouldn’t have happened. The emotionally charged eruption over the verdict has to do with the fact that this murder had not originally been seen as a crime. It took a national outcry for an arrest to be made and for the case to go to trial. Once on trial, it was Trayvon Martin who was treated as the criminal, not Zimmerman, an armed man who erroneously pursued an unarmed teenager. This is what these articles are working to contextualize.

These issues are extremely complicated and larger than the two of us, but we listened to one another and spoke candidly. This is progress, but even that wasn’t enough …

GS: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?

JL: With theatre, we can reflect the important issues, values, and challenges going on in society.

I agree with Sarah Bellamy, Associate Artistic Director at Penumbra Theatre, who says that:

“As image makers, we have an important role to play in moving audiences beyond superficial and stereotypical representations of peoples and cultures and toward three dimensional representations that encourage deeper learning with honor and respect.”

I also agree with Dr. Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California, when he says “there is a need to push the conversation beyond that of self-expression to one of community building and democracy.”

But in order for theatre to do this, we have to take responsibility for how to perpetually update the narrative: What theatre is now with regards to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation etc.? How is it reflective of the change that is happening in America?

Theatres in this country who find themselves serving White, Black and Latino communities should be holding town hall forums and discussions around these issues. They should be commissioning local writers to capture the response of this moment in history so that lessons learned are discussed in depth and carried over to future generation so that such an egregious crimes and senseless loss of life never happens again.

GS: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?

JL: When theatres do not present work by playwrights of color or cast actors of color or hire people of color in leadership positions, this sends a clear message that our voices, experience and expertise are not welcome, relevant, respected or valued. In such instances, I feel that theatres are reinforcing the conditions that led to this outcome. We have to do better. Our season planning needs to reflect out 501c3 status to serve our communities.

GS: So much of this work to make change grows out of the shining example of artists, cultural organizers and civil rights workers in the past and present. From whose example do you draw strength?

JL: I am inspired by the efforts of Sarah Bellamy, Khanisha Foster, Ilana Brownstein, Adam Thurman, Otis Ramsey-Zoe, Shirley Serotsky, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Al Heartley, and Andre Lancaster. I draw strength from Nina Simone, Audra Lorde, Sydney Poitier, Elizabeth Catlett, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Jill Dolan, Derek Goldman, Gregg Henry, Jojo Ruf and James Baldwin. I am invigorated by the efforts of TCG. I have never seen an organization more committed to improving the conditions of diversity and inclusion in the American Theatre. The fact that their efforts are transparent, self-reflective and action-based is extraordinary to me.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com

  • John Prescod

    The 46 calls weren’t all about black males. So…