Arts presenters talk about "starting conversations" with an almost mystical belief in the power of art to engender talk and of talk to engender action. Sometimes, one wonders if these conversations really exist, and whether they escape their own cultural water-coolers if they do.
But Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments makes the idea of "conversation" more than a hopeful shibboleth. With community involvement baked in, it responds directly to the world. In Durham, it expects the world to answer back.
Following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others at the hands of police officers who faced no legal sanctions, in the midst of a renewed protest movement that gave us indelible slogans such as "We Can't Breathe," "Black Lives Matter" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," Brooklyn's New Black Fest put out a call for short monologues about the African-American experience of police brutality. (It had done something similar after the death of Trayvon Martin.) It selected the submissions of six playwrights, including Idris Goodwin, Eric Holmes and Dennis Allen II, for a staged reading now starting to spread around the country.
Common Ground Theatre, ArtsCenter Stage, Ladies of the Triangle Theatre and MOJOAA Performing Arts Company are banding together to bring Hands Up to Durham, casting local performers such as Malcolm Evans and CJ Suitt. The production includes participatory discussions with the creative team and community leaders, and leads to a chance to develop your own story with LoTT for a performance at The ArtsCenter in June.
Hands Up is directed by Monet Marshall, a 25-year-old resident of Durham by way of Long Island with a warm demeanor and a constant smile. She holds a BFA in acting, but has focused on directing lately. "I love to perform," she says, drinking tea at Durham's Beyù Caffè. "But I also enjoy telling people what to do." She laughs. "No therapy, more directing."
Her family moved to the Triangle in 2012 and, finding no black theater company here, founded MOJOAA, which includes Marshall's playwright mother, her actor brother (who appears in Hands Up) and her father, a former NYPD officer. The company blends experienced dramatists and enthusiastic amateurs.
"My dad had his performance debut in our first show," Marshall says. "He danced. It's been great to work with bus drivers and teacher's assistants and retail workers, because both sides have been able to learn from each other. And it's been great to see that it's not just people of color here who want a black theater company."
Marshall brings a nuanced perspective to a polarizing issue. "I'm not like, 'eff the police,' because that's my dad," she says. "There are a lot of good police officers, and the PD put food on our table. But just because someone's good doesn't mean they can't be working in a corrupt system. My dad talks about how stops are some of the most deadly things an officer can do. If you add an innate fear of a person of color, it's a recipe for disaster. It's always in the back of your mind—you're one bullet away from being a hashtag."
One monologue is about three different interactions with police—specifically, with their guns. Two other playwrights take on being light-skinned: One feels disconnected from the issue, and one wishes he'd been a bridge between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. The minimal staging lends immediacy to the stories.
"The most important thing is the audience hearing these words," Marshall says. "[Actor] Justin Peoples said he'd always wanted to be able to say these things. To give someone the opportunity to speak their truth, even through somebody else, is really powerful. We have experts in our midst, but let's treat every person as if their voice is just as important."
But what about women's voices, which are prominent behind the scenes of this production but absent on the stage? "We didn't want to continue the stereotype that only black men are subjected to police brutality," Marshall says. "That's why we decided to make this a seed project for the community performance at The ArtsCenter. We're reaching out to Latina, LGBTQ and Muslim communities."
In this context, Marshall's insistence on the power of conversation is persuasive. "We're not talking about white supremacy at the water cooler or at church," she says. "And even if we were, our houses of worship are very segregated. Theater is a space where diverse people can come together to have those hard conversations."
Marshall especially wants to reach people who perpetuate and are affected by systemic racism in less direct ways—people like me. "Talking about race, people sometimes feel that it is not their issue, but that in itself is a privilege," she says in her usual friendly way, as we part with a hug. "Lean into that privilege and come anyway. You do have something to do with it, and you have a responsibility to change it."This article appeared in print with the headline "Breathing Room."