To demolish racism you have to dismantle the system. You have to dismantle the parts—the beliefs, the attitudes, the values and the behaviors. ... We have to dismantle the culture of white utopia. Kevin Jones (on OPB’s State of Wonder, April 16, 2016)
Most people I talk to feel very unsettled. As it should be. Things are heating up.
I go to sleep worrying. I wake up pressured to act, to somehow be helpful. Mostly I don’t know how or what to do. So when I experience something that feels transformative, that I believe does make a difference, I want to shout it out.
Last week, in the midst of everything bad, I witnessed the power of art, specifically theatre, to create a situation that almost forced people to empathize. I've written before about this special power of art. Sarah Lewis calls it aesthetic force. Not force by gunfire. Not force that maims or leaves us lifeless. But force that leaves us “changed—stunned, dazzled and knocked out.”
Let me explain.
Hands Up is a series of 7 monologues commissioned by the New Black Fest in 2016 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. In these monologues, 7 Black playwrights from different walks of life with vastly different backgrounds share their experience of racism in America today, especially with regard to police brutality and racial profiling. We, the audience bear witness to their raw emotional truth telling: 7 brutal dehumanizing stories told by 7 unique individual people that all share a similar experience of frustration and rage.
Hands Up was brought to Portland, Oregon (btw. the whitest major city in America), by the August Wilson Red Door Project (AWRDP), a local non-profit dedicated to changing the racial ecology of Portland using the arts. Founded by Kevin Jones (also the director of Hands Up) and Lesli Mones, they aim to create an ongoing and sorely needed conversation about race in this liberal, progressive (supposedly) city. They are succeeding. People are talking. Not just during their powerful post-show Talk Backs, but around town in our famous coffee shops and restaurants. Their work is having an impact.
For example, one of the people to see Hands Up was Portland Police Captain Mike Crebs. During the Talk Back he introduced himself and revealed that now, for the first time, he understood why African Americans fear police. Alonzo Chadwick, one of the actors, choked up. He said it was the closest thing to an apology he had ever received from the police. After the show, Crebs sent Chadwick an email requesting to meet. A few days later, which was shortly after the fatal shootings of Philandro Castille and Alton Sterling, and just hours before the killing of five police officers in Dallas, the two met up to chat. Through their conversation, they each understood just a little bit more about the others’ perspective. Check out the article about this in the Oregonian.
In an interview with April Baer on OPB’s State of Wonder, Captain Crebs explained (and I paraphrase) that the experience was unique because he had to sit silently and listen to the voices of African American men and women talking about how they move through the world and what it’s like to be on the other side of a police officer’s gun. He said that when he listened to the monologues, he realized how terrifying it must be to have a gun pointed in your face. He said that he now realized that every encounter with cops impacts how people feel about them. And that he wants the encounters to leave people with a sense of fairness and justice.
I know. It is shocking to hear that Officer Crebs did not realize it is scary for someone to have a gun pointed in their face. (And some people may not recognize that the officers are also often scared). For Mike Crebs, it took seeing Hands Up, participating in the Talk Back and speaking personally with Alonzo Chadwick, to get it. In his words: "I've been a cop 36 years. This is going to be one of those days I truly remember.”
Community meetings, open forums and facilitated dialogue, especially ones that bring people together in an effort to value all voices and understand multiple perspectives are more necessary now than ever. We should continue this, and deepen the practice. I certainly intend to.
But theatre, by nature of its format, offers something additional. It forces us to listen.
From the vantage point of audience, we can’t just react—even if we’re triggered. We can’t argue our side. Talk over the actors. We are forced to sit there, in often uncomfortable chairs (while we sweat or freeze or hold in our pee) and listen. We allow the other’s experience under our skin. We bear witness.
Until later. Until after the art has done its work.
When we talk about race in Portland, Oregon and in many cities, it takes time to get to the truth. We white people are defensive. We are fragile and uneasy; we are politically correct; we avoid appearing stupid or unconsciously racist. We are uncomfortable looking at the ways our sense of ease and superiority has been buttressed by the very notion of our whiteness, a construct that exists for the sole purpose of maintaining our structural power. A construct that white skinned people have lived and breathed and benefitted from, and been dehumanized by in various ways, but have rarely thought about.
This process of opening up is hard. We have to cut through many layers. We want to yell back, say this happened to me, say I am a good person, I have always been kind and fair to people—why am I being accused of this. I’m exploring these defenses in myself. If you’re white, I hope that you are too. I’m especially looking at my need to not be stupid or embarrassed or say the wrong thing. I’m trying to love myself, maintain my spirit of learning, keep my heart open and my head from hanging when my shit is called out. This IS something I can do.
There are many things that art can’t do. It can’t cure cancer, halt climate change or bring Philandro Castille, Alton Sterling or the 3 Baton Rouge police officers killed just minutes ago, (as I write this on 4.17.16, Sunday morning, PST) back to life. Art cannot create sweeping systemic change on the spot.
But nevertheless, it can do something.
Thank you Hands Up and August Wilson Red Door Project. You are helping.
* There are no current showings of Hands Up in Portland. Check the AWRDP website for details on when it will return.