New Solo Performance Shows How Black Mothers Are Left Doubly Unprotected by the Constitution
Taji Senior's amendment puts the country’s foundational document on trial
Taji Senior wants you to show her the part of the Constitution that specifically protects Black mothers.
Oh, she knows it's not there. She wants to be sure that you know it's not there, that you're aware this foundational document on which the United States stands, this hallowed bedrock of our democracy, wasn't written with protections for Black Americans or women, and anyone who falls into both those categories is doubly unprotected. That's the point of Senior's new solo show, premiering this week in a livestream online but also, in a rarity for these pandemic days, in two live performances.
In amendment: the birth of an american myth, or the slow sipping of a peacock tea, a woman named Ma'Dear, who is both enslaved and pregnant, is on trial and faced with what the show's press release calls "an impossible choice": to leave behind her enslavement, in which she is only property, and become a full person; or to remain enslaved and be a mother whose child will be bound to what she calls "the lie." In the course of the trial, Ma'Dear is able to reach through history for witnesses she can call to the stand: pioneering singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson; the Sixties activist Fred Hampton, whose work with the Black Panther Party led to his assassination by Chicago police; Kalief Browder, who was accused of robbery at age 16 and imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years without a trial, an experience so traumatizing that he committed suicide; and Kalief's mother Venida. Their testimony brings the audience, as jury and judge, to understand the value of lives not explicitly covered in the Constitution, lives too precious to be treated as an afterthought, an amendment.
Senior began to investigate this material three years ago, when playwright Adrienne Dawes prodded her to create a solo show for herself. The 20-minute triptych of monologues she wrote about how the Constitution "defines and denies Black people," titled Amendment, was workshopped in Salvage Vanguard Theater's Works Progress Austin new play series, but Senior ultimately felt that it wasn't the show she had wanted to write. She might have left it at that, but in reading Dorothy Roberts' 1997 Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, the book's idea that Black women were excluded from traditional feminist agendas and reproductive rights excluded from civil rights agendas inspired her to re-engage with the material with a focus on Black motherhood.
The version of amendment that emerged drew the attention of SVT Artistic Director Kate Taylor, who was interested in producing it, but not in the same way most other theatres were producing work in socially distanced times. The Zoomscape had no appeal for her, and it didn't feel right for SVT. Senior pitched the idea of livestreaming a performance from inside a theatre, but Taylor was also interested in exploring "what experiential COVID art can be." That led to the idea of a drive-in production, with Senior performing before an audience in cars. "Taji was game," Taylor says. "I believe we are all so hungry to gather and, despite learning myriad new ways that can be accomplished, getting to do it in a physical space feels so special and important."
So, after amendment has its first show livestreamed from Ground Floor Theatre, it will move to Rogge Ranch House, where a stage will be set up in the parking lot and spaces for cars will be marked off and set far enough apart that people can sit outside their vehicles and watch Senior perform live, with the sound amplified and transmitted via radio. Given the limited capacity and need for safety, both reservations and masks are required.
The set-up is more complicated than the standard pre-COVID performance experience, but Taylor believes any extra effort on the audience's part will be worth it – and not just because the show brings back live theatre. "amendment is both challenging and beautiful," she says. "Hopefully, it will provide a balm to many at this moment while also igniting some deep reflection."
amendment: the birth of an american myth, or the slow sipping of a peacock tea will be livestreamed Fri., Aug. 21, 8:30pm, then presented in drive-in performances Sat. & Sun., Aug. 22 & 23, 8:30pm, at Rogge Ranch House, 3506 Rogge. A portion of the proceeds from ticket and merch sales will be donated to organizations supporting the movement for racial justice and equality. For reservations and more information, visit www.salvagevanguard.org.