(Memorial for Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, August 20)
(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MO. This series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia Alick, Mica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
In August of 2014, a group of theatre artists came together under the heading of “The Ferguson Moment” to discuss what we could do as a national theatre community to respond to the shooting of Mike Brown, the protests in Ferguson, and the national conversation around these events, and how we could mobilize to amplify the voices of artists in the St. Louis area doing the same. In the course of one morning, I found myself booking a flight and a rental car, and finding a host on couchsurfing.com. Before I knew it, I was in St. Louis, the first one on the scene, soon to be joined by a small group of others who came to bear witness, show solidarity, forge artistic relationships, and start a conversation about how we as artists could and should respond. I was there from August 20-25, and to document my time there, I posted a journal entry of sorts on Facebook each night. Here they are, combined, with very minimal editing, in two installments.
Day 1 in St. Louis
I don’t know if it’s just because of what’s happening now or the fact that he knew that that’s why I came here, but when my host began to explain to me a little about St. Louis all he talked about was this part is where the whites live, this area is where the poor blacks live, that is where the poor whites live, this is where the really rich people live, this is where the more affluent blacks live… He also told me to watch out because St. Louis drivers are crazy. I thought well that’s two things you’ve got in common with Boston. He referred to the area where protests are happening only as “the mess.” When I headed over to “the mess” it seemed like there was one media person for every regular person. It took maybe about an hour before I ran into Anderson Cooper. Everything was sort of unreal until I came to the place where Mike Brown was shot, now occupied by a big memorial right in the middle of the road with signs, balloons, teddy bears… Clergy were standing around offering comfort to anyone who needed it, more media people, folks from the neighborhood. Spoke for a while with a black clergywoman and a Turkish grandmother about the similarities between the African-American experience and immigrant experience. When I arrived there were some people protesting, mostly just standing around and talking, some giving interviews, some cops. When I left a little before six to go to a community forum in the city, police had begun to stage very heavily.
(Ron Johnson with Ferguson schoolchildren at Ferguson Public Library, August 21)
Day 2 and 3 in St. Louis
So much to process. In brief: School has been canceled this whole week so thousands of kids have no school, which also means they don’t have breakfast or lunch. Went to volunteer at the Ferguson Public Library and the First Baptist Church, where teachers, librarians and other volunteers are holding impromptu classes for kids of all ages. Played some theatre games with a group of third grade girls in between stacks of books because the place was so packed. Felt good to do something but also uncomfortable not knowing if this was really helping. Gov. Nixon and Capt. Ron Johnson showed up for photo opps. Definitely not sure if that was really helping. Went to a meeting of local artists at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission and heard so many amazing ideas of how to respond to what’s happening with art and community engagement. Been having a lot of conversations about what it means to be an ally. Trying to figure out how we as outside artists can plug into and support what’s happening, but there’s such a fine line between helping and interfering / coopting. Finding it difficult to proactively navigate this landscape without inadvertently asserting my white privilege. I thought I came here to help but I’m finding out that I came here to learn.
(St. Louis artists taking a #HandsUpDontShoot photo at the Regional Arts Commission St. Louis, August 21)
Today Claudia Alick and Mica Cole Kamenski from Oregon Shakespeare Festival arrived in town. We had a meeting tonight with a small group of local artists about what our goals should be for our #FegusonMoment gathering on Sunday. Then went to a poetry open mic. Confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, inspired, humbled, renewed.
(NAACP March, West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, August 23)
Day 4 in St. Louis
Spent a day of service and witness with Claudia Alick, Mica Cole Kamenski and Katy Rubin. Marched with Ferguson residents and the NAACP up and down West Florissant Avenue in 100 degree heat, people passing out water bottles. Met some beautiful people. An older woman singing about how she had no purpose in her life until Mike Brown gave her purpose. People of all colors standing in solidarity. After the march folks had gotten a bunch of air conditioned buses for people to sit in, not to drive anywhere, just to cool off. A man came on the bus selling Justice for Mike Brown T shirts, but another man asked him how much he was giving to the family and he wouldn’t say so no one bought any. Katy and I had bought some previously and hadn’t gotten a straight answer either. We spoke more with the 2nd man, who was a close friend of the Brown family and a member of the “Mighty 13,” a group of community leaders who make it their mission to take care of whatever people in the community need. We spoke about the witnesses in the Mike Brown case and he said the police were trying to intimidate the key witness, Dorian Johnson, because he had an arrest warrant previously and had lied to police. “I lie to the police,” he said. “We have to.” He said Johnson was changing his story now because he was getting scared, but his original story matches the rest of the witnesses’ testimonies. He predicts the police will try to arrest Johnson so he’ll miss his court date. A white woman on the bus said she went to high school with a lot of these cops. “They just don’t get it,” she said.
We walked over to a peace rally at Canfield Green, the apartment complex where Michael Brown was killed. Claudia, Mica and others were manning an arts and crafts table for St. Mark’s Church. As we arrived a preacher was speaking on a soundstage which she then handed over to a gospel hip-hop group. From the other end of the street folks were blasting “Fuck the Police.” People had lined the street leading up to Mike Brown’s memorial with roses a few days before. A man performed a piece of street theatre in an orange prison jumpsuit and an American flag blindfold, counting off all those who had been killed. He ended by taking off the blindfold and jumpsuit and crying, saying, “No one’s got our back. Not Al Sharpton, not Jesse Jackson, not Barack Obama.” People in the crowd yelled out names of murdered black men. Ran into some activists I’d met in the past few days. The emotional exhaustion was palpable. Connected with a reporter from Boston who wanted to interview me. I said I’d rather refer her to a local person of color, but she was doing a story on why people from Massachusetts had come to Ferguson and what they were doing. So I did the interview. Still felt conflicted after.
We went to get dinner and plan the agenda for tomorrow’s artists’ gathering at the Regional Arts Commission. Afterwards I went back to West Florissant to witness the protest that would happen later that night, as it has every night. They’re calmer now than they had been last week. When I arrived, small groups were marching, folks stood around talking and doing interviews with press, people speaking poems, having arguments. The Revolutionary Communist Party was everywhere, handing out their newspaper and holding a very loud rally with speakers from out of town talking about how it’s not about Ferguson, it’s about the whole world. I listened for a little and got fed up. Went back to my car for a minute and came back when I saw the police were suddenly everywhere. Ran into my new reporter friend again who told me she thought someone had kicked a police car. We talked some more, off the record. The RCP started marching. Locals confronted numerous people about agitating the situation and not acting in accordance with the wishes of the people of Ferguson. They didn’t listen.
(Danny with Captain Ray Lewis at the nightly protest on West Florissant Ave., Ferguson, a little after midnight August 24)
Had some incredible and beautiful interactions. Occupy Wall Street celeb Capt. Ray Lewis was there and was very nice to talk to. I filmed a video of him speaking for a while about how the media is suppressing this story, and particularly refusing to interview him even when locals have asked them to. Had some great conversations with folks about the history of systemic racism and the current state of civil rights and race relations in this country. People here know what they are talking about. I shouldn’t have to say that but I keep feeling the need to say it. We need to listen to the voices and stories of people who have been disenfranchised. They get it. We don’t. Gave one of the protestors a ride home and called it a night.
Danny Bryck is a theatre artist and activist based in New York and Boston. He is the creator of No Room for Wishing, a one-man documentary play based on interviews with people involved in Occupy Boston, and The River and the Sea, based on interviews from Israel/Palestine. As an actor he has worked in Boston with the Huntington Theatre Company, American Repertory Theater, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, New Repertory Theatre, Underground Railway Theater, the Publick Theatre, and Stoneham Theatre, among others, and in New York with The Civilians, New Perspectives Theatre Company, and on the daytime drama As the World Turns. He was an artistic associate with Whistler in the Dark Theatre in Boston for three years. He also works as a dialect and accent modification coach and theatre educator. Danny has been nominated for four IRNE awards, including Best Actor in a Musical, Best Solo Performance, and Best New Play, and received the David Wheeler Award for emerging talent in the Boston theatre scene. He holds a BFA from Boston University’s School of Theatre and studied at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, and is a member of Actors’ Equity Association. www.dannybryck.com