(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.)
The Monday after the Travyon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict came in I sit with 80 youth in a rehearsal room at The Goodman Theatre. While Chicago is known for being one the the most segregated cities in America, our rehearsal room is not. Our students come from every part of the city (and beyond), every socioeconomic background, and a multitude of cultural backgrounds. We spend the summers together in a 6 week intensive that encompasses social justice, playwriting, devised work and performance. We give them the highest level of training, and thanks to the Goodman, we do it for free.
On this particular Monday, discussing this verdict, the circle of high schoolers has leaned out instead of in. They are looking at the floor a lot. Some are crying. Some are looking at people who are crying. They adjust their clothes and re-tie their shoes. There is a disconnect happening that may seem normal in our imagined views of teenagers, but we haven’t seen it in our room until today. The program is ensemble based and we work from day one to be exquisite listeners. We honor what is different about others and celebrate how that reveals new parts of ourselves. These students are generous and daring, today however, we cannot have a conversation, no matter how gently led. Today, we are stuck.
We talk about sensitive issues all the time as we prepare for our show, Re-Mixing the March. We’ve been exploring protest and oppression, voice and joy, but these explorations have been about digging into the past. Today is about the present. We bow to the work. We send them home with homework, which we call “party” because the word homework makes them groan and lay out on the floor. Doing the work of theatre feels like the opposite of that, so as a group we decided party was a way better word for it. We ask them all to interview someone on the verdict and bring it in the next day.
What happens after stops my heart. After collecting the interviews three of us from the teaching staff sit at a table without the students and read them aloud to each other. Most had interviewed their parents and there was an undeniable division between the responses of People of Color and of White people. We stopped and started often as we listened to the divide. It was as if the two groups (I’m simplifying by saying two) had seen two completely different trials. It hit me, take the facts of the case away and just look at these reactions. Why do we listen so differently? How can we have access to the same news coverage and experience the reported reality so differently? Why is it that we don’t seem to be taking each other in at all? One side was passionate and afraid, talking about their fears and their worth. The other was cerebral and lecturing, explaining the law as if the other party had never learned it. The following words repeated, but did not cross sides: child, old enough, race case, justice, race card, safety, equally at fault, guilty, not-guilty, life, death.
We re-built our day with a focus on empathy and listening. It seemed retroactive to build work that so immediately divided us. We didn’t have to agree with each other, but we did have to be ready to listen. We acknowledged the division though art and our favorite phrase in the room, work from curiosity and not judgement. We did an activity called Cross the Line. It gives students an opportunity to claim identity in a safe way without words. I will not share with you the specific un-foldings that day as they are private, but I can tell you people, bravely, let themselves be seen and made room to see others. A natural conversation about identity grew out of it and they were very engaged in the comfort of supporting each other. Then we revealed the separation in the interviews, and we asked, “How come you can lift each other up so beautifully and listen so fully, but when we talk about this verdict we cannot hear each other? Take a moment,” we added, “and with the great care and curiosity we are living in right now, let’s ask questions about each other that we are afraid to ask. Let’s try to hear someone else’s perspective.”
The loveliest of things happened, a gentle slow conversation about what communication looks like in each of their homes accompanied by exquisite listening. The play they built ended up being about how we are seen by and how we see others.
This is not a post about how theatre made us the same. It is a post about how theatre makes us able to see each other. I just keep wondering what would have happened if George Zimmerman had seen Trayvon Martin walking down that street and instead of feeling fear he had smiled and said hello.
Khanisha Foster is a mixed race actress, writer, teaching artist, the Associate Artistic Director of 2nd Story, ensemble member of Teatro Vista, a TCG Young Leader of Color, and has collaborated with the Citizen’s Theatre in Scotland. She is in the film Chicago Boricua, is writing her memoir, HEROIN(E), screenplays, and has published a story about her work as a teaching artist in the anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low Flying Duck. Check out her Solo Show Actor of Color, her blog Black, White, and Awesome, and her work here: http://2ndstory.com/people/khanisha-foster