I am not a native Texan even though I spent many summer vacations in Beaumont, Texas as a child visiting my mother's family. It wasn't until I moved to Texas to attend college did I begin to learn about the long and often sordid history of blacks living in the south that I had only read about in history books.
As a transplant from Michigan which has a robust history of civil rights activism long before the national legislation forced predominately southern states to treat all its residents equally. Slavery was prohibited before the first state Constitution was approved, blacks could freely own property, interracial marriage has been legal since 1883 (long before the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision which abolished miscegenation laws in all states that had them), and legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in public education was passed in 1867, 2 years following the end of the American Civil War. Even with those protections in place, there was still racial tension but it was always met head on.
My parents were both politically active, my father as a United Auto Workers union officer and national union delegate, and my mother as an elected official serving as a Water Board Commissioner and School Board Trustee. I had my own experience with social activism, organizing a campus walk-out in protest our school was the only predominately black school in our district of 9 schools, but the only one who did not recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. My mother was on the school board at the time and supported my efforts. So my expectation was everyone regardless of the state they lived in functioned like this.
Living in Texas, particularly Dallas, has literally been like living in a different country. When Texas governor Rick Perry threatened succession from the union, the support he received from Texans did not surprise me one iota. Discrimination, inequality, and segregation efforts here are more corporate, institutionalized, and covert, far beyond what you experience in other states. And what's surprising is everyone, including blacks, are used to the system that is set up. Everyone accepts their place.
"Black At The Assassination", co-written by Kyndal Robertson and Camika Spencer, 2013 grand prize winners in the Teco Theatrical Productions New Play Competition examine this dynamic as part of city-wide JFK 50 remembrance activities.
Directed by Becki McDonald, who makes some excellent directing choices with her large cast of fifteen adult and children actors by combining brief oratory, traditional dialogue, and injecting cast members into the audience to DRAW viewers dead smack into the action. This created a theater experience that is equally educational, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Use of mixed media was also a component but the limitations of the performance space really hampered full immersion into the subject matter created by Robertson and Spencer in their script.
Billed as a fictional story based on personal accounts and public record, "Black At The Assassination" is broken down into five separate scenes, some top heavy with statements like "this person was the first black..." Normally, that irks me because it's common knowledge blacks contributed to the building of this country in substantial ways so we don't have to wear that knowledge on our sleeves. But when viewed through the lenses of Dallas, a city that lynched a black man Allen Brooks in broad daylight in the downtown area in 1910, it is completely understandable why any gain for civil rights would be enthusiastically celebrated by its black residents, despite the fact the civil rights movement we are familiar complete with public protests virtually bypassed the city.
Scenes 2, 3, and 5 really get under your skin and give you a perspective on the mindset of the Dallas black community that has been passed down from generation to generation.
In Scene 2, we find Mrs. Brooks, played with spot-on clarity by the exceptionally talented Deon Q. Sanders leading her class of young students through a history lesson in preparation for watching the parade of President John F. Kennedy in downtown Dallas on TV. The ensemble of children actors included Heaven-Leigh T. Pettis, William J.P. Pettis, Kendall-Gayle Washingon (Eugenia), Devion Rushon Camp (David), Larry Johnson, III, Amani Hood, and Ta'Nya Webster (Dearest). This scene really POPPED and each child approached their roles like consummate professionals, not children awkwardly reciting lines without a real connection to what they're saying. Given the subject matter in this play, that speaks volumes.
Clear standouts are sister/brother duo Heaven-Leigh T. Pettis as Kathy and William J.P. Pettis as Frances Calhoun. Kathy, whose nonchalant attitude when being presented history information was downright funny but it was her insolent response towards the issue of separate but equal schools ("I don't wanna go to school with no white people. I like things the way they are. They don't wanna go to school with me. I don't wanna go to school with them.") that made you understand her jaded yet accepting position of things simply remaining the way they were.
When Frances disagrees with Kathy's assessment, replying "conditions at white schools are better. They have new books, all the new gym equipment, and they have science labs with beacons and burners that work and everything. My daddy works with this white man and his son told me he dissected a frog in his class with a real scalpel", Kathy quickly retorts "My brother is in college at Prairie View studying medicine. He says we need to build our own communities like the one in Hamilton Park and stop thinking that what white folks have is better. I don't need to be around them to dissect a frog", they effectively illuminate the continuing discussion in the black community on whether all-black schools are the way to address black student under-achievement in public education.
The reaction of the children after the assassination was equally gripping, especially the thoughts of Donald, played by the talented Larry Johnson, III, and Brenda, portrayed beautifully by Amani Hood.
Donald, with the natural wonder and curiosity of a child, states "What had happened? The President had been shot and killed. I remember how sad it made the adults, but I also remember wishing I could leave school rush home and get my camera so I could go downtown and capture the scene."
But it was Brenda's statement, which tugged on the heart strings of every parent in audience who have children, "I don't remember everything about that day, but I do remember being afraid and not knowing exactly what I was afraid of."
Scene 3, featuring Jose Silva as Junior Molina, Otis Donnelly Watson as Marvin Gray, JuNene K. as Ruth, and Vontress Mitchell as Earl, centered around a planned Dallas teacher's protest. This scene SIZZLED and was a delight to watch. Marvin and Ruth prefer the traditional approach to civil rights activism in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., while Earl prefers the in your face tactics used by Malcolm X and subsequently the Black Panther Party. Junior Molina wants to embrace change as much as his counterparts but is equally concerned that his actions do not jeopardize the financial livelihood of his father and family.
Even though Mitchell and JuNene K., both brilliant acting talents, alternate between outshining each other throughout this fast paced scene, they did hit on some key points that helped you understand how black Dallasites saw their role in the civil rights movement as being localized. When Earl invites Ruth to come to New York to hear Malcolm X speak, Ruth replies flippantly "No, thank you. Malcolm X is only talked about by certain types of Negroes and I am not one of them. I'm raised in the Southern Baptist tradition."
When Earl appeals to her to reconsider the invitation, emphasizing he is also Southern Baptist but also reads the teachings of notables like Dr. King, Malcolm X, Castro, Krushnev, and Kennedy, Ruth is immovable, retorting "I study teachings, writings, and speeches too, but of Dallas' Negro leaders: A. Maceo Smith, Juanita Craft, H. Rhett James, and Jimmy Brashear. Even though that was perplexing to me, I understood it. Overall, it was a great ensemble effort.
The final scene, which opens with the talented Eric Beasley preaching to an ensemble of unspecified adults and ends with a decade by decade continuum (1963 - 2013) of the struggle for complete integration in public places and schools completely delivered and demonstrated the costs that sometimes come with change. Rodney Blu was HYSTERICAL and a complete scene stealer in his indignation over the injustice occurring in Dallas, with a charge to call popular black television and radio personalities of each period to do a story.
However, what drove the message of this play home was a statement by one of the adults following forced busing, "White people are leaving Dallas and taking their tax dollars with them to Richardson, Plano, and Carrollton! White flight and redistricting are killing our property values and our schools! We need to keep electing Black officials to help us maintain community."
When you look at the racial divide that is Dallas, Texas, you can't help but to agree.
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Bishop Arts Theatre Center
215 South Tyler Street
Dallas, TX 75208
The production will conclude its run this week with the following shows: Fri. Oct. 25 evening performance at 7:30 p.m., Sat. Oct. 26 matinee show at 3:30 p.m., and Sat. Oct. 26 final evening performance at 7:30 p.m.
All Seats $15 in advance, $20 at the door (plus service fee)
General Admission Seating, 3:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Call the box office at 214-948-0716 for more information
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