(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.)
GUS SCHULENBURG/JACQUELINE LAWTON: How has the recent fatal shooting of Mike Brown impacted you as a theatre artist? As a citizen? As a human being?
JACQUELINE THOMPSON: I was born and raised in St. Louis, lived in Canfield apartments where he was killed until the age of five. I have lived in other cities, and none of them have held the silent racial rage that the city of St. Louis’s exudes. Our communities are polarized (research the Delmar divide) and we breathe in the segregation and distance but rarely confront it. Mike Brown’s death forced the veil to be lifted and made the city deal with inequalities that have been festering.
As a theatre artist, my job is to give a voice to the voiceless. My charge is to illuminate the truth to facilitate healing. Healing cannot take place without understanding. This tragedy has forced me to search for my own understanding. As a human, it grieves my spirit. Out of this grief, came a heightened desire to increase acts of service in my community-giving time and resources to rebuild and unite for a stronger tomorrow.
GS/JL: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to what is happening?
JT: The community wants its voice to be heard. At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, I have set locations on campus where students can share their experience. I am documenting personal responses to archive raw and visceral reactions. These interviews will eventually be turned into a creative project so this moment will not be forgotten. It can be used as a vehicle for dialogue and work towards change once the cameras and reporters leave Ferguson.
GS/JL: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Mike Brown, racial profiling, and the militarization of the police?
JT: Theatre has the ability to serve as the mirror to society, casting an abstract and beautiful light in the darkest situations. Theatre art carries the responsibility of sharing these realities from all perspectives. Actors/writers have the choice to make conscious decisions to be artistic activists. We can creatively stand against these injustices in forums where people of different opinions are gathered to silently process and challenge their own paradigms in the performance space.
GS/JL: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?
JT: The racial/cultural dynamics may always be the elephant in the room when addressing social justice themes in theatre. It undoubtedly depends on who is producing the work. Whoever holds the power/resources to produce the work dominates the images and messages presented to the public. If those in power have no cultural understanding of the importance of addressing these issues, or if they feel that certain issues (such as those in Ferguson) should be filtered, then the work that provokes change becomes tainted making it exponentially more difficult to penetrate the mainstream mindset. This is where it becomes crucial and vital that we recognize the importance of devised and original work: creating spaces for independent performance art/artists. It is energy wasted for artists to silently wait around for a piece or a role to be written that tells their story or reflects the change they want to see in society. We must write our own! We must value our own voices as significant, and acknowledge that we all have unique experiences to share with the world.
GS/JL: 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?
JT: I draw strength, courage and wisdom from every artist, organizer and civil worker of color whose sacrifice and contribution to the world gave me hope and validity that I could accomplish my dreams and aspirations. From Hurston to Hall, Wilson to McCraney, Hansberry to Cleage, Dee to Davis, Hughes to Angelou, and Shange to Giovanni….my experiences, fears and hopes have been captured, justified and personified which gives me fuel to keep moving forward.
Jacqueline Thompson received her B.A. in Speech Communications from Clark Atlanta University. She holds a Master in Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Louisville as well as a graduate certificate in African American Theatre. This actor, singer, director has utilized her collective experiences to work as a teaching artist for regional theatres such as Actors Theatre of Louisville. Ms. Thompson is currently the Assistant Professor of Acting and Directing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.