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How do you formulate the words to accurately emulate the experiences of a tragedy like the Black Wall Street massacre? Are there any words that justifiably describe the afflictions of innocent lost lives subjected to the short end of injustice and indecency? I'm no expert, but I can speak to the atmospheric shifts that puncture a community with a happening significant as the Black Wall Street massacre (which can be further researched here).
You couldn't have told me that I wasn't at my grandmothers' house during a family gathering "listening in grown folks' business," as all of my elders would put it. Boy, did the African American Playwrights Group choose a show?! For the first time in the history of Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, an all-Black cast presented Greenwood, written by Coolidge Harris II.
The program notes stated: "The Matthews Playhouse of Performing Arts and the African American Playwrights group (AAPG) have joined forces to collaborate and expand the Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) presence in the Matthews area within the performing arts."
"The African American Playwrights group, created by founder Vickie L. Evans, is a collaboration of African-American playwrights whose mission is to produce quality and excellent theatre works in our communities and abroad."
Blazing through 18 submissions and 5 semifinalists, Greenwood put its foot down and held its ground! A well-deserved win for Harris II (writer), Elizabeth Flax (director), and the cast of this production, Greenwood.&
Obtaining a plethora of accolades and directing credits including Sister Act for CTG, Po' (a musical comedy), Gifted and Black, Colored Peoples' Time, a recurring role as an ER nurse on Law & Order: SVU, and many more, Flax opened another door and made her name known in yet another space, the Matthews Playhouse, this weekend.
Beginning with the beautiful setting of a 1921 boarding house, a cohesive lighting design of blue and red hues created a sense of nostalgia. With a bar table, dining table, couch, and other living room/homely accessories, the set was the epitome of a home welcoming experience. I noticed myself imagining whose house in my family this design-related most closely.
"This historical drama, set in Tulsa, OK, starts on the day of May 30, 1921; the day leading up to the Black Wall Street massacre. Lucile and Red-Manning, owners of a boarding house located in the heart of the Greenwood district, come to realize they are two degrees separated from a guest who has come to establish roots there. The boarding home occupants ... live a normal life, proud of the community they have built, but navigating the undercurrent of racial inequities is a constant in their lives. The play is a love story that orbits the most violent day in Black American history."
From conversations centered around bourbon and whiskey distilleries to recipes for "the best sweet potato pie," playwright Harris II pulled out all the stops for this piece. Stories about Lucile's (Diatra T. Langford) adolescence were exposed, telling the harsh tragedy of living with her rapist in the hopes of "healing her condition." Lucile was subject to an illness which she described to the likeness of "breathing underwater." Explaining a disorder where, when walking outside, she would instantly become like "a fish out of water." Reflecting on the stories of how she was shipped near and far to guide her back to health, she shared how her parents found a "healing community" based in Kentucky which claimed the ability to heal her. As she delved deeper into the story, she denoted her fear as the man said to be ridding her of her pain would come to touch her, only relieving himself of his vices. Though, the most troubling to stomach was the trembling inequity of telling her mother of Caldwell's inappropriate advancements toward her and being given the unpalatable response that "God sent you there for healing, it's ok."
Furthermore, Greenwood contributes vulnerability into the history of experiences in the Black community during 1920 in Tulsa. Providing insight into who initially coined the term, the character Shriner informs the house members that "Booker T. Washington called Greenwood the Negro Wall Street." Shriner (Carle Atwater), a wise soul, goes on to include that "you can't go further in life than the weight you're carrying will allow," and when sharing his three failed marriage experiences, noted that, "The grass isn't always greener on the other side. It's greener on whatever side you water it." Atwater's performance reminded me of a few of my great uncles. You know those ones that put their soul in the cooking, make sure everyone is fed and gives you a good laugh every time? Stern, yet sincere. So sweet and respected highly – this was the energy that Atwater gave for his character. Casual and organic, for a while I'd forgotten it was a play because of how fluid the character's interactions were with one another.
Greenwood is the perfect convulsion of education and storyline. Red-Manning (Cameron Drayton), a property owner, lives to educate about the benefits of land ownership for the Black community. When asked by the character Young boy (played by De'Ron) to explain the process of purchasing land, Red-Manning lights up. Young boy, introducing information given to him by someone in passing says, "Owning property is a King's ransom." Red-Manning expressed adamantly his desire to purchase land - some 228 acres to create an atmosphere of success and abundance for the Black community of Greenwood. Drayton played his character to the authenticity of a humble, God-fearing man, striving to make an honorable living for his family. De'Ron took Young Boy's character to heights I didn't see coming.
Feasting around the table, playing cards, and drinking lots of bourbon, I could envision my cousins, uncles, and aunts sitting around the table enjoying the presence of one another. Just imagining the smell of the rich, homemade buttermilk cornbread, along with the silkiness of a poignant sweet potato pie, I was in awe at how perfect of a representation that Harris, Flax, and cast created to simulate the Black family on stage.
As the nostalgia of homeliness and family fellowship quickly diminished, I was left with the unsettling reality that life for the black family in America is much different indoors than outdoors. Using the dynamic of chaos outdoors and serenity indoors, Harris and Flax did a phenomenal job of executing the constant uncertainty and questioning of safety present in everyday experiences. The cast did not short this experience either, with Shawnese (Elisabeth Spivey) highlighting the elephant in the room and asking the unfiltered question, "Why do men in our families have to die? And for no reason at all.." Spivey's performance was wholly and filled with charisma. The chemistry that she and her 'partner' Tucker (Brandon L. Gaston) created was one of a kind and clearly told the story of the relationship of a couple where both partners are headstrong and independent.
Here's for a deeper look into the play:
"What are some of the stories that you would like to tell or need to be told?"
Vickie L. Evans says with vigor, "Our culture (Black culture) is rich in stories. Like anyone else, we have a lot to say. It's not all about slavery. We have original stories that we want to educate on who we are as a people."
What do you think is the role of the playwright/storyteller in keeping this story alive and truthful?
Coolidge II says in response, "To tell the truth. If you can keep it real, then that should be the mission. When I write, I don't write to offend anyone, but I do feel an obligation, to tell the truth, and expose our truth."
Evan's offers some words of encouragement for the playwrights seeking exposure or simply contemplating beginning their journey: "Love your craft, don't give up, and always keep going. Always keep going. Never stop no matter what the obstacles and challenges are."
Greenwood took the stage and made its mark. As the first African American playwright and cast to perform in the Matthews Playhouse, they did not disappoint. As Evans put it, their mission in the African American Playwrights Group is "Impact and Impartation." From portraying the fellowship around the table to educating a wider audience on our history authentically, I am proud of the impact that Greenwood has made thus far.
Thank you, AAPG, for trusting Matthews Playhouse with authentically representing your objectives, and thank you to Matthews Playhouse for trusting AAPG and Greenwood cast and crew to create in this space and use the platform to voice our truth.
Until Next time!
Aneesah Abdur-Razzaq --- Breathe, Believe, Be FREE!