Showing Black Lives Matter

Facing race then and now onstage in Pretty Fire and Hands up Hoodies Down

Feliz Dia McDonald (r) rehearsing <i>Pretty Fire</i>
Feliz Dia McDonald (r) rehearsing Pretty Fire

It should have been a day of wholehearted celebration, honoring the courage and sacrifice of those who marched for equality, who marched for justice, and whose fortitude in the face of intimidation and violence inspired a nation and led to lasting political change. But the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and its commemoration in Selma occurred the same week that the Justice Department released its reports on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and on the police department there, and that 19-year-old Tony Robinson was shot by Madison, Wis., police officer Matt Kenny, and so the triumph of this landmark event in the civil rights movement was muted by the news of yet another unarmed black man killed by another white police officer, our joyful hearts made heavier by the fresh evidence that, a full half-century after overcoming the brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, racism is still alive and well and poisoning our body politic. We hoped to bask in the sunshine of that achievement only to find ourselves still caught in what President Obama called the "long shadow" of this nation's racial history.

And so the marches continue, and the vigils, and the chanting of the words that ought not need to be said but do: "Black lives matter. All lives matter." It is work for change that calls every one of us to emulate the marchers in Selma, to "possess their moral imagination," the president said, "to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children."

And one way in which those attitudes can be altered, our consciences stirred, is through art – the stories we tell, the experiences represented onstage, the movements and music that express feelings and truths beyond words. This week sees a pair of theatrical productions opening in Austin that are doing their part to work for change, that speak to the experiences of African-Americans past and present, that show black lives mattering.

Hands Up Hoodies Down is, as its title makes clear, an immediate and urgent response to current events. Hip-hop theatre artist/poet/educator/mentor Zell Miller III, who has been speaking out about race and justice and humanity on local stages for two decades now, conceived this "protest song sung in the key of high octane spoken word stanzas exploding through tears and heartache." As well as co-writing it with Chelsea Manasseri, Miller is staging it and performs in it, along with Manasseri, Kann, Da'Shade Moonbeam, T-Fly, Ashé Arts Collective, and Sadé Jones, who also provides choreography. In a promotional video for the production, Miller states, "There was a time in this country when young men in hoods got away with murder. Now young black men in hoods just get murdered." It's a potent indicator of what fuels this project and where it will take you, but even more so is his statement when throwing his arm around his 15-year-old son: "This is no longer just about being an artist. It's about being a dad." Miller's passion, conviction, and electrifying power with spoken word, not to mention the team of talents he has assembled, make this brief run – three nights only – something important to witness.

Pretty Fire, on the other hand, has its roots in the time of Selma and before. Acclaimed actress Charlayne Woodard drew upon her own childhood experiences in the Fifties and early Sixties for this solo show. Beginning quite literally with her birth – a difficult one, she was premature and small enough to fit into her mother's hand – Woodard guides audiences through her 11th year in five sections, spinning tales of sisterhood and neighborhoods, schoolyards and church choir lofts, and visiting her grandparents in the hilltop black town of Rossignol Hill, Ga., where this African-American child of Albany, N.Y., encounters the overt racism of the Jim Crow South, including members of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross.

Woodard originally performed the show herself, and William Earl Ray, who is directing the Austin staging, saw her do it and recalls her performance as "something to behold," adding, "I had never at that point in my career viewed that type of storytelling onstage with one actor who happened to be African-American and female. It was truly an eye-opener for me. I knew one day I would want to direct Pretty Fire on my own terms." He is doing so here for Spectrum Theatre Company, the 2-year-old group whose mission is to bring more African-American stories to the local stage in professional productions. Austin Critics Table Award-winning actress Feliz Dia McDonald fills Woodard's shoes.

In his Selma speech, President Obama spoke to the shared history and character of Americans that make us such powerful agents of change, and among the varied historical figures and types of people he said we are, he included this: "We are storytellers, writers, poets, and artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told." Certainly, that describes the artists who have collaborated on these productions and is one more reason their voices should be heard.



Hands Up Hoodies Down runs March 12-14, Thu.-Sat., 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. For more information, call 512/478-5282 or visit www.vortexrep.org.

Pretty Fire runs March 12-22, Thu.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 2:30pm at Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport. For more information, call 512/478-5282 or visit www.spectrumatx.com.

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