Magazine article American Theatre

The Trayvon Factor: Playwrights and Theatres Are Revisiting Issues of Race on Stage in the Wake of the Martin-Zimmerman Verdict

Magazine article American Theatre

The Trayvon Factor: Playwrights and Theatres Are Revisiting Issues of Race on Stage in the Wake of the Martin-Zimmerman Verdict

Article excerpt

KEITH JOSEF ADKINS WAS ON HIS way to the opening-night party for Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of A Midsummer Night 's Dream when he got a text message with the news: A Florida jury had acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Travvon Martin.

In the 17 months between Martin's death and die jury's verdict, the case of the overzealous neighborhood-watch volunteer and the 17-year-old, hoodie-wearing black teenager (who had been visiting his father's fiancee in the gated Florida community that Zimmerman was guarding) had sparked a national debate about stand-your-ground defense laws, racial profiling, white privilege and other hot-button issues. And Ad kins, co-founder and artistic director of the New Black Fest, a New York City-based theatre festival, was so upset by the outcome that he skipped the party and went home.

Days later, still struggling to sort out his feelings of rage, disappointment and confusion, Adkins decided to look for solace and answers where he'd always found them: in the theatre.

"Theatre is one of the few public forums in which people can engage and have conversation and feel comfortable and feel protected," Adkins says. A playwright himself, he knew he didn't want to put the burden of responding to die case on the shoulders of just one writer. "I just felt, 'Let me find writers whom I know are from diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives,'" he recalls thinking. "That way the conversation can be wide."

Adkins e-mailed six playwrights lie knew personally or by reputation and asked if each would write a 10-minute play exploring issues that the Martin-Zimmerman case had raised. The count-me-in responses came back almost immediately.

"It was kind of a no-brainer," says Dan O'Brien, who won the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History for his play The Body of an American, a docudrama about the photographer who took the Pulitzer-winning picture of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. Adds O'Brien, "I'm very excited by trying to bring theatre and poetry closer to things that are actually happening right now and affecting lots of people."

Encouraged by such responses, Adkins went on to reach out to some 10 theatre companies he'd worked with over the years and asked if each would stage an evening of the Martin-Zimmerman plays in some form. Among those expressing interest were some heavy hitters--the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Center Stage in Baltimore, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and the National Black Theatre in New York. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan quickly nabbed the right to present the package's world premiere and scheduled a reading for Dec. 5.

Meanwhile, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., signaled its strong support for the project by scheduling its reading of the plays for Feb, 5, the date that would have been Trayvon Martin s 19th birthday. The reading will also serve as a thematic scene-setter for the production opening five days later of Jackie Sibblies Drury's prodigiously titled We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, form the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, a sly look at the tensions that surface when an integrated group of actors rehearse a play about a German act of genocide against an African tribe.

Like Drury, the playwrights who signed on to Adkins's project--its formal title is "Facing Our Truth: Ten-Minute Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege"--are mainly in their thirties and forties, part of the post-Civil Rights Era generation that is redefining the discussion of race in the American theatre. Some, like Dominique Morisseau, whose play Detroit '67 is the first in a planned trilogy about that troubled city, are known for their intentionally political work. …

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