(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?
John Prescod: As a theatre artist, I can only say I lost more theatre artist Facebook friends debating this than anything else: especially black theatre artists. As a citizen and human being, I knew exactly what the verdict was going to be, and I could see the trajectory of this thing playing out a mile away. The evidence was never there for a murder charge, yet they pursued it. NBC edited the tapes in order to make Zimmerman seem racist—they even apologized for it. The defense team talked about the “unprecedented” withholding of evidence by the prosecution—an IT director who raised similar concerns was promptly fired. So, this has always been a case that was blown out of proportion, made into not only the biggest but the ONLY story on Earth by CNN, and it was for no other reason than to sow the seeds of racial division and distract us from…well…pick your scandal. So, sure, it was a tragedy for the Martin family, but I felt somewhat validated after it: my BS and propaganda radar is still well-calibrated. This was geared to distract us from the start of World War 3, which is kicking off in Syria right on schedule with the usual lies from the United States. It’s frightening, but true.
GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to that outcome?
JP: The only action I’ve been taking, and I admit my style is likely counter-productive, has been a desperate attempt to convince people away from the continued pursuit of this case, the demonization of Zimmerman and the deification of Trayvon, and most of all, the Eric Holder-led crusade against “Stand Your Ground” laws, which the mainstream media has done an excellent job of turning into Jim Crow 2.0. I beg people to focus on the real issues, the corruption and crime of this government, which ironically has, as its two current figureheads, two black men: Barack “I could have been Trayvon” Obama and Eric Holder. It seems a losing effort. Because this drive against Stand Your Ground may feel like a civil rights movement when Stevie Wonder’s doing boycotts. But it is a concerted effort by powerful authoritarians to disarm us and divide us. And we can no longer afford naivete. You want to take on racism? Want to take on violence against black men? 93 percent of black murder victims are killed by other blacks. Not George Z. What’s behind that? Drug war. The CIA flies drugs into the country on C-130 jets, and blacks get arrested for dealing 130 grams of it. Biggest jail population on Earth. Our streets are turned into war zones (usually made worse when citizen gun ownership is disallowed, another cause celebre of Team Obama). Now you’re going to trust the same guys who run that program to “bring Trayvon justice?” Do people just want to wake up in a dictatorship? Or another one—Obama launched a war in Libya, funding Islamic death squads that went out of their way to slaughter black Africans. Tens of thousands. Absolutely no one cares. I guarantee that people reading this will not even ask what I’m talking about (though thank God you have created the forum for it). It’s frightening. When you have things like that going on, it puts “racism” and the Zimmerman verdict into perspective.
GS: How have you engaged, or will you engage, with those who feel differently about that outcome?
JP: Well, outside of the blogosphere, I don’t find any talk about it at all. I find that more reassuring—real world people either see through it, or instinctively know to avoid a giant pile of manure. On Facebook, I don’t delete anyone. I let them amuse me, to no end. My mother’s Jewish and my father’s black: I’ve never been called an anti-black racist (or self-hating racist) so much in my life. It really is frightening. On this issue, it is hard to get anyone “on the other side” to speak logically about the specifics of the case. The scariest part is that they don’t even go on the evidence (it is obvious that Zimmerman told the truth), they simply make up their own thing. And they don’t realize that if they are against Stand Your Ground, then they’d have to support a murder charge if Trayvon had killed Zimmerman (easy to do when you slam a dude’s head on concrete).
GS: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?
JP: George Zimmerman might have done well to take a theater class or something to deal with his paranoia issues. Other than that, theater can’t do much to stop this kind of thing, because these kinds of events (“white” on black shootings) are so rare. Black-on-black is much more common—theatre would do well to address the causes and culprits of that. (See above). So, with all due respect to the question, the acquittal of Zimmerman was a Godsend, a sprout of justice in an Everglades swamp of injustice. I’ve considered writing a play pointing out just how much danger Zimmerman is in now that the entire federal government is now aligned against him. His civil rights, indeed his life, are in incredible danger.We can only hope more Trayvons and more Zimmermans meet in Guirgis plays or something, not on the streets.
GS: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?
JP: Much as in society, the problem in theater ownership is not necessarily racial, but class-based. Class just happens to fall along racial lines. There is so much old-fogie theatre for old-fogies, doing the same old shows…but while minorities are always going to be at a disadvantage, the impetus is on them (as it is on all of us) to do some innovative work. We’ve got so many great black theatre artists, things like Fela! and Passing Strange, but then we have people converting white plays to black plays. Denzel doing Raisin in the Sun. Let us go new, let us go hardcore, and let us rage against the machine even when its face is painted black. The theater backlash against Bush was incredible. The theater backlash against Obama has been nonexistent. Probably because Obama’s held himself up as a black and gay rights hero. And people buy into it. And now Oprah is announcing she’s going to invade Broadway soon. When she’s not busy buying a 35,000 dollar handbag, and having offshore meetings with Bill Gates about God knows what. We can do better than that—and on the ground, the Off-off-offs, we are.
GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to change those conditions within the theatre field?
JP: A play I’m developing entitled SECRET SERVICE began its life amidst the absurdity of the excesses of our security state, and the racial overtones within it have only been highlighted by the absurd racial strife cooked up in the Trayvon debacle. I don’t know how much theatre must/should serve the agit-prop mindset—if you want the basic information, you’ve gotta go read it—but I think great theatre always reflects those social truths, and this 24/7 info-cycle we’re in, this absurd barrage of BS, it is such fertile ground for theatre. Both to reflect it, and to escape from it, to higher ground, where cooler heads prevail. Theatre’s really universal. We did a reading with the Amoralists–when you drop that N-bomb, when you drop that anti-Obama joke, the audience gasps. You can really tell where the fear, the self-censorship kicks in, at least with New Yorkers.
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?
JP: Harold Pinter, first and foremost. His Nobel Prize acceptance speech absolutely savaged the criminal nature of the American government. He died just as Obama was elected, a true shame. I’ve recently been collaborating in my own small way with the Amoralists, an outstanding, sprawling, rollicking gang of theatre-makers. Alex Jones, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Ariel Dorfman, Augusto Boal, Dick Gregory, Ron Paul, Michael C. Ruppert, the late Michael Hastings (Obama’s latest victim), Terrence Yeakey and other murdered/persecuted whistleblowers…Spike Lee when he was relevant, Oliver Stone, Max Keiser, Fred Hampton…I guess you can toss Barack Obama, Henry Kissinger, and all of MSNBC on there, because they incite a rage that fuels me to no end.
John Prescod is a playwright, screenwriter and actor living in Brooklyn. With EBE Ensemble, he wrote, acted in, and directed many plays including Reck and Pre-Disposal (hailed as “disdain[ful]” by the New York Times). He has appeared as Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and as White in The Sunset Limited. His screenplay THE HOUSE JOHN AFRICA BUILT was a runner-up in the Screenwriting in Philadelphia competition, and location scouting in Puerto Rico for his screenplay DESERTERS begins in the next few months. After being interrogated in Pennsylvania by the FBI and the Secret Service in the space of two weeks, he wrote his play SECRET SERVICE which has been in development with The Amoralists.