Davidson Theatre confronts race and privilege in five short plays

Lucas Weals-

Clockwise from left: Grady Pearson ‘19, Ariel Chung ‘21, Sophie McHugh ‘18, Jenny Jones ‘18, and Olanike Oyedepo ‘19 Photo courtesy of Chris Record / College Communications

On September 3, 2016, the New York Times ran an essay by Dr. Naomi Rosenberg, MD, called “How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead.” Rosenberg, an emergency medical physician in North Philadelphia, gives her advice in a harrowingly clear direct address: “After the bathroom you do nothing before you go to her. You don’t make a phone call, you do not talk to the medical student, you do not put in an order. You never make her wait. She is his mother.” More grave and tragic lessons follow. On first reading her piece, I was shocked, moved, shaken for a few minutes from the strange warm comfort of a campus coffee shop. But I remember feeling that something was missing. When Rosenberg writes, “If you were the one to call her and tell her that her son had been shot then you have already done part of it, but you have not done it yet,” I imagine that phone call, but I cannot picture what the scene might look like on the other end. Where was the mother of the boy who was killed? Who was he? Who is she?

In Mona Mansour and Tala Mannasah’s “Dressing,” the last of five short plays that make up Facing Our Truth: Ten-Minute Plays on Trayvon, Race, and Privilege, Olanike Oyedepo ‘19 gets a phone call. She picks up the receiver and intones, dead-straight, “The mother gets a call.” At this point in the night we all know what she means. Her son, played by Tony Richardson, has been shot dead. Of the five short plays staged this evening, only one has finished without a gunshot: the first short, “Night Vision,” also the night’s most purely realistic work, in which Victor Ouko ‘20 and Tatiana Pless ‘19, as husband and wife, argue over the details of a domestic abuse scene they both just witnessed outside their home.

Each short play is more impressionistic or nontraditional than the one before it. The second piece, A. Rey Pamatmat’s “Some Other Kid,” focuses on the youthful romances and lofty aspirations of three high-school friends, with each character directly addressing the audience to expound some memory or piece of philosophy. Owen (Zane Libke ‘21) tells a kind of parable of a cat that his cousin used to systematically abuse before it one day scratched his face deeply; Elissa (Ariel Chung ‘21) traverses the theater handing out stickers branded with messages of courage and empowerment, which she likes to drop on public places or hateful online scenes (“Love bombing,” she calls it); and Grady Pearson ‘19’s Andre tells us that he’s not really special. A crucial part of being special, he remarks, is believing that other people are less special than you are. No one likes to think of it that way.

After the Saturday night performance, we form two circles of chairs on the stage. This is the structure of our “talk back,” a way for each night’s audience to interact and engage with Facing Our Truth in a different way. Some nights featured speakers, like newly-elected Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston and Dr. Joseph Ewoodzie, Martin O. Partin Assistant Professor of Sociology here at Davidson; one showcased a gallery talk by the photographer Alvin Jacob, whose work has led him to document resistance, unrest and injustice in Ferguson, Charlottesville, and Baltimore, to name only a few cities; but our talk balk is a conversation amongst ourselves. Kanise Thompson ‘17 and Jenny Jones ‘18 arrange audience members of approximately thirty-five year or older in the outer circle, and younger audience members in the inner circle. Each pair has a six-minute conversation responding to a question about the play—Did one of these scenes remind you of something that’s happened in your own life or community? Which character do you wish you understood better? What do you think might have been keeping you from that understanding?

Owen’s wisdom surfaces twice in my three dialogues. My partners and I are deeply unsettled by his stab at what seems like the most unimpeachable institution in suburban white life: telling your children they are special.  We have never thought about who was being made less special by that valuation: about where they live, what they look like, why exactly we never seem to see them in our neighborhood. It’s just this sort of realization—mundane but chilling—that the talk backs seem designed to arouse, at least in our mostly-white audience.

The other two names we mention most frequently are obvious: Trayvon Martin, whose name and murder the show’s longer title invokes, and George Zimmerman, the subject of Facing Our Truth’s most nontraditional scene: Dan O’Brien and Quetzal Flores’ “The Ballad of George Zimmerman.” The New Black Fest, which commissioned all of Facing Our Truth’s short plays, calls “The Ballad” a “folk opera.” Zimmerman and an unnamed guitarist play Flores’ music rhythmically against one another, as Zimmerman, an intense and expressive David Lee ‘20, narrates his infamous 9-1-1 call.

After chasing Trayvon (Pless) off-stage and back on again, Zimmerman sings details from his life, biographical information that might complicate our understanding of the killer. He and Trayvon grow close to agreeing at times—they’re both “middle-class as sh*t,” for example—but any hope for escape is continually dashed against the song’s disturbing refrain. “Because I’ve got the gun,” Zimmerman sings, “one of us is gonna die tonight.” They dance together—a dynamic and beautiful combination of modern dance and fight choreography arranged by Tod Kubo—before the inevitable conclusion. Trayvon’s murder is the primal scene not only of Facing Our Truth, but also of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as it exists today. (There are other catalysts—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice—but Trayvon is still the most easily invoked, murdered not even by the police but by a vigilante, one whose race had magically imbued him with the state’s most fearsome power.)

There’s another scene to address—“No More Monsters Here,” the night’s most openly comic play. Sophie McHugh ‘18 plays Rebecca, our clueless white anti-hero. She is sure of many things—her status in society, her psychologically disastrous relationship with her parents—but of none more certainly than this: she is not a racist. (We all recognize Becky.) But when her therapist, hilariously adapted by Pearson, diagnoses her with “Negroidphobia,” Rebecca accepts an experimental treatment: donning a black hoodie that will turn her into a black man, Rahim, for three full days. (The hoodie features in every play, a symbol so deeply burned into the flesh of the present that it needs no explication.) As Rebecca “Rahim” McHugh navigates life in Harlem with pitch-perfect awkwardness, parsing life advice from her grandmother and from a corner drug dealer (both played by Jones); facing rejection for employment even at Walmart; and eventually being shot by Pearson. Of course it was “all a simulation,” as he’s quick to inform her. But the damage is done. Walking some distance in someone else’s shoes—in this case some beat-up Timberland boots—is a true pharmakon, both remedy and poison.

Becky’s discomfort is our discomfort. To be in touch with the issues Facing Our Truth dramatizes—to be “woke,” in other words—doesn’t guarantee emotional connection to the problem. Even the most accessible critics on the matter, like the ubiquitously cited Ta-Nehisi Coates, can produce an inadvertent sort of alienation in a predominantly-white readership with their perpetual focus on the black body as the site of white violence and oppression. Dr. Rosenberg, in her seemingly unrelated context, warns against how that sort of language can come off from a white speaker: “You do not ever say ‘the body.’ It is not a body. It is her son. You want to tell her that you know that he was hers.” It’s easy for us, as college students especially, to adopt the vogue terminology without context for its use—writing papers on Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., all while theorizing “black bodies” rather than black people.

But this is the magic of Facing Our Truth, the heart of its artistry: the bodies are now real. When, in “Dressing,” Oyedepo runs her hands across Richardson’s chest—her son’s ghost, tracing her grief in bold and beautiful dance—she can wail, “that body,” and we know precisely what she means. From the first scene, Facing Our Truth defines itself through the body: the choreography, which starts the show and resurfaces throughout, is the work’s most effective feature.

This is why I’d stake the claim that Facing Our Truth wasn’t just a good performance—it was, and Director Sharon Green deserves praise for bringing such a controversial and powerful piece to life; though the elements (lighting, projection, music, dance, acting) sometimes lacked perfect cohesion, the experience is quick-paced and sensitive, and takes healthy risks as well. But it’s also a show that’s good for us. I generally don’t care much for moralizing about art; too often the piece you “have to” see or read is just an expression of the dominant ideology, the voice of a pointless hierarchy affirming only a sliver of human experience. But Facing Our Truth, even when it feels a little disjointed, has its fingers firmly on the pulse of modern America’s most urgent issues—police violence, disenfranchisement, mass incarceration—and, beyond that, it embodies them, giving chances for meaningful representation to actors of color and students who have never acted at Davidson before. Its central issues are precisely the things we’re supposed to learn about and confront at a school like Davidson. May there be more performances like this one.