(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.)
“We’re making this play to show that even when we’re right, we can’t get right.”
At Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, each rehearsal process kicks off with the following exercise. We stage a scene in which someone needs a handshake and another person refuses to give it, essentially refusing to acknowledge the humanity of the other. We ask the actors if they know what this feels like: to be denied acknowledgement, to be treated differently because of who they are or who they’re perceived to be. Then we all take turns jumping onstage in solidarity with the protagonist, stepping into his or her role. We are rehearsing ideas to get that handshake, engaging our collective imagination–and maybe our collective anger–exercising the belief that there’s a possibility for change. Finally, we brainstorm: what are some things that this community needs as much as the handshake; community rights that have not always been met? What do we want to see change?
On this day, the community is a group of young adults on probation or parole in Jamaica, Queens, many with felony convictions. In addition to meetings with parole officers and court dates, they spend eight hours each day in high school equivalency classes and job-training programs at CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services).
Theatre of the Oppressed NYC partnered with CASES in response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, as it became clear that NYC youth have stories to tell about the racism they face daily, on the streets and in the criminal justice system. Our job was simply to offer the tool of forum theatre to a community seeking change. But when every young man and woman in the room has ten stories of being stopped, harassed, ticketed, and often arrested by cops for no reason except being black, it’s nearly impossible for the actors to believe that they have the power to incite change in the criminal justice system. And when some actors are due to head to Rikers Island next month, it’s not always clear how rehearsing a scene on the bus to Rikers can be a step towards justice and not just salt in the wound. It can be easier to imagine change from a perspective of privilege than from a state of emergency.
Jones: A community right is getting a job. A job: for survival, money, life.
What keeps you from getting a job?
Jones: Well, I have three strikes against me: I got two felony convictions, I’m black, and I didn’t finish the 10th grade.
Everybody looks back down at their phones, because the conversation’s over, right? What else can anyone say that would change that for Jones and for everyone else?
However, in our cramped, makeshift rehearsal room in Jamaica over the past two months, the prospect of sharing the real story with police officers, probation officers, family members, neighbors and policy-makers–the possibility of (small, slow) change that could be initiated by performing that story onstage and engaging audiences in dialogue–led the troupe to create Can’t Get Right.
And because the play comes from the young adults experiencing racism and harassment on the streets and in the criminal justice system every day, and not from a playwright or director living most of their days in a dark theatre, this essay also comes from the actors. Below are words from Dre, an actor in the troupe who also drew the image for the poster:
“I’m speaking on behalf of the cohort.
The point of the play: the title, the picture, us -
We all got a message to send out to everybody.
The way the world is that we live in: people don’t know.
We all got backgrounds, we all got our own story—but we all get harassed by police every day for doing nothing.
This is how things really are.
They look at us, when they look at us and we’re arrested, they see bad kids.
We bad kids.
We robbed somebody.
When really we’re just hanging out, we getting harassed.
That’s why we can never have a good time and relax.”
“We’re making this play to show that even when we’re right, we can’t get right.
That’s a fact.
If I take a test, and I get a perfect score, I can’t get right. Why? Cuz I’m black, they think I had to cheat off somebody, I had to know the answers somehow before.
What does “can’t get right” mean? Sitting in the park, getting ticketed for just sitting there on the bench, not doing anything.
They attack us more – they come at us more – they want us – they automatically act like we are a suspect. If there’s a call on the radio, a male 5’8” – they’re coming for us automatically. They’re not going to go to 42nd St, they’re coming right for the hood.
Look what happened to Tray. You know who I’m talking about, right? Trayvon Martin. That’s “can’t get right” – just going home. Skittles, soda, just going home. Look. Killed him. You saw Fruitvale Station? Now that’s “can’t get right” automatically right there. See how he was treating them? How come they just got the black people – none of the people he was fighting with. You heard about the kid, that neighbor shot him because he didn’t like rap music? Because his music was too loud? He couldn’t get right.”
Dre and his fellow actors are taking the chance that New Yorkers recognize the need for change, that they will come out to see these stories and join the actors onstage in solidarity, and that theatrical dialogue can pave the way for action.
Performance details below:
Can’t Get Right investigates racism and profiling on the streets, in the NYPD and throughout the criminal justice system. This original, interactive forum play was created by court-involved young adults in the Queens Justice Corps and based on the lived experiences of the ensemble. In memory of Trayvon Martin.
Performances are free and open to the public. Join us in theatrical problem-solving.
For more info, visit www.theatreoftheoppressednyc.org
Tuesday Feb 25th, 7pm
Afrikan Poetry Theatre
176-03 Jamaica Avenue, Queens (F train to 179th St.)
Tuesday Mar 4th, 7pm
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Black Box Theatre, 524 West 59th (at Amsterdam Ave)
Presented by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC in partnership with The Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), and hosted by the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in Jamaica and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Theatre Department.
Katy Rubin, Founding Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, is a joker, actor and circus artist. She has facilitated Forum Theatre projects and performances with NYC communities including homeless adults; LGBTQ homeless teens; people living with HIV/AIDS; court-involved youth; and recent immigrants. Katy trained with Augusto Boal at the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed—Rio. She has also collaborated with Combatants for Peace in Israel/Palestine, Jana Sanskriti in India and Cardboard Citizens in England, and trained facilitators in Nicaragua and Norway. She holds a BFA from the Boston University School of Theatre and is a TCG Global Connections grantee.