In the past two days, many Seattleites witnessed two performances that centered Black lives.
On Wednesday, over 2,000 teachers in the area wore Black Lives Matter shirts to class. The action, as my esteemed colleague Ansel Herz writes, "was in response to bomb threats that almost derailed a black student empowerment event at John Muir elementary school last month." The demonstration also served to draw attention to the opportunity gap between white students and students of color in Seattle schools.
Thursday evening, Seattleites packed the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to watch Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied, a show created by LA-based director and Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. The show has run in Kalamazoo, MI and LA with different city-specific performers, but last night featured PNW voices and was produced by Intiman Theatre.
Before a diverse but heavily white crowd (I contributed to the whiteness), co-producer and general Seattle art powerhouse C. Davida Ingram applauded the teachers' actions before adding, "But this is a conversation that's bone deep, not skin deep," indicating that there was much more to say.
The performance that followed powerfully illustrated that point.
When the lights went down, the cast lined up in the aisles and began reciting Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." They made their way to the stage and assumed a column military formation. Each person then announced their full name, preferred gender pronouns, and racial identity. This sound off productively served political and artistic ends, simultaneously introducing the performers who would go on to tell their real stories of enduring state violence as well as reasserting the particularities of self that the state had denied them during those violent instances.
The institutions involved included the TSA, local police departments, local correctional facilities, and public schools. According to the storytellers, the types of aggression they experienced while navigating those systems ranged from micro to macro. KT described the indignities she faced while incarcerated. Seck spoke of an arrest by undercover officers while he was selling CDs. Monique and Akilah Franklin told parallel stories about the way the public school system failed them to the extreme. At certain moments, a few performers—none of whom were professional theater-makers—fought to speak through tears, but they always powered through.
Though every story was different, a few themes threaded through them all. The major one was subjugation. All interactions with law enforcement officers, for example, only ended when a white supremacist reality was asserted and confirmed. A cop offers to turn on the air conditioning in his cruiser AFTER a black man is in handcuffs in his backseat. Another cop offers help with a broken vehicle AFTER a mixed race woman "makes herself small" and begs for it.
Many of the details in the cast's stories revealed deep miscarriages of justice happening right here in our community, and almost all escalated as a result of trying to "x" while Black. Trying to drive while Black in Seattle. Trying to exercise a right to assemble while Black. Trying to go to school while Black.
The nine performers who survived these injustices did not at one point and/or have not yet had their experience "officially" accepted as reality by the state. The audience served, in part, to affirm their reality.
After the performers exited the stage, Cullors stood in an aisle and led a "Black Lives Matter" chant. The room resonated with the call as audience members responded, and the whole thing served as pretty righteous encore. Cullors then helmed a Q&A, wherein a few black audience members shared similar stories and congratulated the performers on their bravery.
"My goal is less about the product," Cullors said onstage. "So much is how do we build family? How do we build black space?"
Jazmyn Scott is taking up that charge as the program director of Langston, a new non-profit housed within the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Scott says a year or so ago a group of community members founded Langston, and this month she came on as the organization's first and only staff member.
"Similar to what you heard from Patrisse and Davida last night, we want Langston Hughes to serve as the hub of African American art and culture in Seattle," she says. "We really do feel like having Power in this space is an opportunity to create a conversation around black culture, healing, and all the things that are happening in the African American community right now."
She says Power definitely "works toward our goal of cultivating black brilliance."
Unfortunately the show is sold out through the weekend, but Scott promises more events on the horizon. Langston plans to host a "mini" African American film festival sometime before Thanksgiving, in addition to the annual Langston Hughes African American Film Festival that runs in April. They're planning an official launch event at the turn of the year, and also a music festival later on in 2017. Scott is also focused on partnering with members of the community who want to "share stories from an African American perspective."
If all the events are as innovative, engaging, challenging, and just plain good as Power was—and the two I've seen recently certainly have been —then Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute might be in for renaissance spearheaded by the African American community, even in the face of a rapidly gentrifying Central District.