(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?
KELUNDRA SMITH: I was not surprised by the outcome of the trial, but I was disappointed. I have a brother who is 18 years old. He could have been Trayvon Martin. He wears hoodies, drinks Arizona, eats Skittles, Starburst, Hershey’s, and all of the other candy he gets from the gas station across the street from his high school. The outcome of the case impacted the way I see his possibilities and the way he will be treated. No matter what, he will always be seen as a threat, and that saddens me. What saddens me more is that it is not just him. It is every African American man that has been, that is, and that will be in the foreseeable future.
GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to that outcome?
KS: I am still trying to figure out what my response should be, and I think we’re in that same place as a nation. I can say that I am more conscious about encouraging the young black men in my life. I try to encourage my brother, his friends, and my cousins to take the outcome of the trial and let that propel them into greatness. Dream big, get serious about an education, and find your purpose. Don’t conform to what someone thinks your blackness means.
GS: How have you engaged, or will you engage, with those who feel differently about that outcome?
KS: I don’t mind that there are people who feel differently about the verdict. What I mind is the hate speech that has come from George Zimmerman supporters and opponents, alike. We are all entitled to our own opinions, so I will engage with those who feel differently as if they are people worthy of love and respect.
However, I will say that as a black woman, interacting with those who agree with the criticism Rachel Jeantel received, and continues to receive, is difficult for me. Rachel is a black, dark skinned, heavy set, teenager with a lot of attitude. She is not the most refined person in the world, but what teenager is? She received so much harsh criticism from those both black and white, because she makes people uncomfortable. The reason why is because in America when we see women that look like her, we know that they don’t have any power, and we like that. But there she was, armed with power of her testimony. She had the ability to potentially send someone who looks like the people we’re used to seeing in power to jail for murder, and we had to listen to her.
GS: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?
KS: I recently wrote something on my blog that I think sums this up really well:
“For many people, what Trayvon Martin really represented was the value we place on black lives in this country. When the verdict came down as not guilty, many people of color thought ‘If this white man can get away with killing this black boy, then all white men can get away with killing all black boys. As a result, black boys will kill each other because society has told them that they are worthless.’
From the very beginning of this case, the media, pundits, legal analysts, etc. have framed the argument over this case as if Zimmerman killed the wrong black boy this time. (As if it’s usually okay to kill young black men because they are probably guilty of something.) If the court of public opinion, if the liberal media, can’t make a jury in Sanford, Fl. find a white man guilty of murdering a black boy, where is justice for black boys?”
I’m not sure the American theatre is treating black people any better than the justice system in Florida. Most of the work in our regional theaters is written, directed, produced, designed, and patronized by white people, particularly white men. Then most regional theatres may do one “black play” as its minority catch-all, and then it’s like see you next February. The same is true of the Great White Way. When black actors do get parts, they are dropped into white plays, still keeping black playwrights, producers, and directors at bay. This is a problem, and not just for black people, but for all people who identify as an “other.” We need more inclusion and appreciation, and less isolation, in the American theater. The story of “the other” is the American story, and we need to stop thinking that it’s not.
GS: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?
KS: Everyone is waiting for the race conversation to go away. By 2017 when President Obama is out of office there are those who think that we will go back to the America we know and love. We like the America that chooses not to see that non-white people have never been treated as equals.
The responsibility of art is not only to hold a mirror up to the world, but to also transcend it. I want the American theater to be better than the laws. Twenty-six states have Stand Your Ground Laws, and there have been Trayvon Martin-like cases in others, they just didn’t get the attention that Florida has gotten. I challenge the American theater to break the silence. Don’t protest orange juice, Disney World, or Sparkle paper towels. Protest silence. Protest absence. Tell the stories that go untold, not just for black people, but for Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, immigrants, refugees, women, poor people, inmates, children, and everyone else who has been left out of the theatre, on stage, behind-the-scenes, and in the audience.
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?
KS: My mom said something so profound to me the other day. She said “Someone died so that you could read a book, so that you could have a book.” Because my great aunts and uncles marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, when I turned 18 my father made me go register to vote. My own parents who were raised in Georgia and Alabama survived violent racism, from their parents tires being slashed to being chased with baseball bats for walking down the street at night just because they are black. My parents were born in the 60s so it’s not like I’m talking hundreds of years ago. I don’t have to look any further than my own bloodline to draw strength. Like many minorities in this country, I come from a line of people who survived circumstances that seem impossible today. If they can work, get an education, raise families, and own homes, all while fighting Jim Crow, then certainly I can create art that means something.
Kelundra Smith is a freelance arts journalist and is currently the public relations manager at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY. Her emphasis is on optimizing non-profits’ usage of social media and digital communications for audience engagement and new audience development. Her journalistic work has been published on BroadwayWorld.com and in Dramatics Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers Journal, and other regional publications.