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Commentary: When Black Lives Matter Onstage Meets Tragedy On The Streets

Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden in "American Son" at Barrington Stage Company, directed by Julianne Boyd. (Courtesy of Scott Barrow)
Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden in "American Son" at Barrington Stage Company, directed by Julianne Boyd. (Courtesy of Scott Barrow)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Artistic Director Julianne Boyd co-founded Barrington Stage Company in 1995. She has directed many of the theater's hit productions from musicals to classic revivals and world premieres, including the recent "American Son."

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

I was reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s words last week for the first time in many years.

Julianne Boyd (Courtesy of Barrington Stage Company)
Julianne Boyd (Courtesy of Barrington Stage Company)

For the past four weeks Barrington Stage presented the world premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son.” The play, winner of the prestigious Laurents/Hatcher Award for Best New Play of 2016, is about an estranged interracial couple (the wife is an African-American college professor and the husband a white FBI agent) who meet at a police station to find the whereabouts of their missing 18-year-old son.

Over the course of an evening the couple and an African-American law enforcement officer express their views on race, prejudice and bias in both rearing a biracial child and what it’s like to be a black man in our country today. The conversations are compelling, frank and at times painful as the characters must face their own beliefs and prejudices, sometimes for the first time.

We held many talkbacks as well as a weekend symposium on “Race and Bias” in Pittsfield, the home of Barrington Stage and the Berkshire community with the most diverse population.

Then came the events of last week. As the nation reeled with the news of the shootings, our actors reeled also. How were they going to continue playing characters that dealt with the same issues that were in the headlines? In one of her wonderful speeches, the wife tells her husband he will never understand the pain she and their biracial son feel when the names Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Tamir Rice are mentioned.

The first time the actor Tamara Tunie had to say these lines after last week’s shootings, her voice quivered as tears welled up in her eyes. I was in the audience thinking, “Will she also mention Alton Sterling and Philando Castile? Those names are on everyone’s minds today.” She didn’t, but one member of the audience let out an audible sigh, which was chilling. Tamara pushed forward with her speech and regained her composure.

Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, is consoled by a minister outside the governor's residence in St. Paul the day after Castile was shot and killed after a traffic stop by police. (Jim Mone/AP)
Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, is consoled by a minister outside the governor's residence in St. Paul the day after Castile was shot and killed after a traffic stop by police. (Jim Mone/AP)

At the end of the play, the lights went to black quickly and the audience sat in silence. They could not applaud. When the lights came up, a few people began clapping, followed by a few more, then an arousing standing ovation. Yes, the actors and I felt good about the applause but it seemed like an empty victory until we began a talkback with high school students. A 16-year-old white student got up and in front of his classmates, both black and white, pointed to the multiracial cast members and said, "I'll never understand what it's like to be you or you, but I feel like I need to do something. I can help. Things need to change." The entire group of high school students applauded.

That student made the distressing events of last week a little less painful.

Let me end with another quote from Bertolt Brecht: “It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality.”

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