ZM3 Live Productions' Echo of a Refugee ... Me?

Zell Miller III's latest was a state of the city address that called out Austin for gentrification and policies harmful to its black citizens

Austin, you have been called out.

Called out for your racism, your inequality, your insensitivity, your police brutality, your white privilege, your greed, your ignorance, your blindness, your blandness.

Called out for not protecting lifelong residents of historic neighborhoods from developers who drive prices up and drive black and brown people out.

Called out for not saving cultural spaces and not treating all artists fairly.

Called out for catering to the wealthy at the expense of the needy.

Called out for forgetting what you are, and the things and people that made you special.

Zell Miller III has been paying attention, Austin, and in his latest theatrical project, Echo of a Refugee ... Me?, this native son let you know that, delivering a state-of-the-city address from the perspective of the Eastside, from the perspective of black Austinites, from the perspective of a citizen who sees his hometown acting like black lives don't matter.

This was Miller doing what he has done so powerfully for more than 25 years: igniting words and firing them at audiences, where they blaze and dazzle, casting heat and light. He is a poet of the first order, molding language and rhythm into passion-fueled vehicles for truth able to, as I wrote on Miller's induction into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2017, "crack open any issue, pierce any position, slice through bullshit ... exposing the deceit, hatred, injustice, or the beauty, hope, light." In this case, Miller largely focused on the "deceit, hatred, injustice" side, zeroing in on the policies making life even harder and more unfair for Austin's citizens of color than they have already been for generations and not hesitating to name names of offenders (Mayor Adler, Zach Theatre, the Chronicle). I've never known Miller not to be political in his writing and performance or not to make the political personal, but if there was a difference here, it was that instead of dealing with the effect on himself or his family, he focused on his home, his frustration and outrage over the degradation of this place where he's lived his whole life. Throughout Echo of a Refugee ... Me?, Miller expressed a loss as personal as if looters had broken into his house and stolen everything precious to him.

But it wasn't just Miller talking. Along with spoken-word segments (backed by the propulsive drumming of Thomas Wheeler and mesmerizing bass of Sir Charles), Miller gave voice to five other Austinites with their own views of what's going down in their city now: a barber, a call-in talk-show host, a 10-year-old boy, a theatre company director, and a white ally of the Black Lives Matter movement. Each was called upon to speak – the barber to his customer, the radio host to his listeners, the boy to the City Council, the director to his audience, the ally to a reporter – and through their discourse, each displayed personality traits that made them more than mouthpieces: the barber's jocularity that shifted to sternness when instructing some young charges in the strategy of chess; the host's political savvy, which he teasingly undercut with wry references to himself as an uneducated product of public schools; the boy's weariness in making his soft-spoken appeal for the council members' help so his family won't have to keep moving to find somewhere affordable to live. They were individuals, and it's a tribute to Miller's empathy and acting skills that he imbued even the privileged, presumptuous white ally – who could have easily been just a cartoonish straw man – with some humanity.

The theatre director's address came after his company's final performance in a space that was closing after 22 years, a move he blamed on the city's lack of respect and support for the vital work his company had done. Though the speech was made in character, it was tempting to wonder if Miller was speaking for himself, airing his own grievances over the lack of support for all he's done. I hope the closing of Echo of a Refugee ... Me? was not the end for Miller's work in Austin. His voice is vital, and the city needs to hear his truth, even if it burns.

Echo of a Refugee ... Me?

Santa Cruz Theatre, 1805 E. Seventh
Aug. 11

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Zell Miller III, Thomas Wheeler, Sir Charles, gentrification, ZM3 Live Productions, police brutality

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