Three and a half years ago, I saw one of the most powerful, visceral, humorous, scary, and dangerous pieces of theater I’ve ever seen in my life, either before or since.
I’d invited Kyle to come with me, having no idea what the play was really like. I just figured it would be something he might like or relate to, and those kinds of plays are rare around here.
The piece was “Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments.” It was six black male actors, speaking the truths of six black male playwrights, infusing those words with the raw, visceral emotions of their own experiences.
They said the kind of words that, especially in the South where some of them were from, could get them beaten up, arrested, thrown in jail, murdered, sent to prison for the rest of their life.
Can you imagine being a black man and saying this to a bunch of white people?
So how I feel?
Fuck you is how I feel.”
… and then saying “fuck you” to the white people over and over through the rest of the monologue?
No wonder the actors said, during the talkback afterwards, how scared they were of saying these words. Words they’ve wanted to say to white people over and over, but didn’t dare out of fear for their own safety.
By halfway through the sixth and last monologue, all of the hairs on my body were standing on end and my whole being resonated with the received power of the truths being spoken. I was at the point of weeping.
Of course, Kyle had a different experience. All of what those actors were saying, all of what the playwrights had written – he knew that already. He sees police activity, he walks away. Now that he has some kind of device to record the interaction, he might stay to do that, but before that, nope.
Back in 2009, when Maurice Clemmons was at large, Kyle didn’t leave the house. Maurice Clemmons killed four white police officers in the Tacoma area, and the police were looking for him in Seattle because he had family and friends here.
Kyle knew the police would kill Maurice Clemmons, and he didn’t want to be mistaken for him. After all, Kyle is another big black man.
So Kyle was glad people were saying those words, and people were listening.
Some of the pieces were funny, too. There was this one part that made me laugh my ass off. An actor I know was reading it, which made it even funnier. It was from the point of view of black man, talking about how great it was for white women to have sex with a black man. Of course, I do that regularly, so when I heard those lines I couldn’t stop laughing. The actor could tell it was me, which made it funnier still. But it was still risky humor.
As I was working on this piece, I asked Kyle what he remembered about the performance. The first thing he remembered was all of the audience being made to stand up and hold our hands in the air. Then I remembered, too. We were all saying:
“Hands up, don’t shoot.”
At the time I wondered, what made the actors take that risk, at that time and at that place?
I think the actors took the risk at the theater that Monday night, because it was a time and place in which they could say them. I think it was because they’re actors, and they’re trained to inhabit and express emotional truths. I think it was because it was Martin Luther King Day. I think it was because they had a black woman director whom they trusted to guide them on the difficult journey.
And I think it was because, after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and the thousands of other black men who have died violent deaths – they’re just plain damn fucking tired, and they put it all into that powerful piece of theater.
But I think it was also because the white people in the audience were listening. Nobody protested, nobody got up and walked out. We listened with open ears and open hearts.
After the play, there was a time for discussion. The actors had a chance to speak about what it was like for them, saying those lines.
And after that, I was chatting with one of the actors, and I said, stumbling a lot over my words, that if I had helped make the theater safe place for him to say those words, I was glad.
That part that I quoted above – here’s some more of it:
Love and Worry seem to always go hand in hand. That’s the truth.
Three and a half years later, I still remember the power of that night of theater.