Just days after the commemoration of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I arrived in Memphis, TN. I'd been invited to perform my one man show, We Are Here, at the National Black Box Performing Arts Festival, convened by Hattiloo Theatre. The journey had been long and tedious. While the trip from Los Angeles should have been a matter of a few hours, I ended up on a twelve our journey, most of which was spent in an airport in Minneapolis. I arrived exhausted and anxious about how I was going to get through my tech and first performance. I grabbed a few hours sleep and headed towards the performance venue. I'd been told that it was in walking distance, but I was nervous about getting lost and showing up late. So, I ordered a Lyft and off I went.
As we traversed Memphis I was struck by the signs of development that I'd witnessed in every major city I've visited over the past ten years. I hesitated to name it gentrification as my knowledge of Memphis was extremely limited. I passed streets whose buildings seemed to have been carefully preserved to evoke memories of soda jerks and water cannons.
I passed the mouth of Beale street and thought of James Baldwin. I approached a sign that said Lorraine Motel and my breath caught. Another that said National Civil Rights Museum. The rambling of the Lyft driver about some decadent dessert she'd had faded to a dull hum. A brief news clip flashed through my mind of politicians, civil right stalwarts and the surviving King children. The car stopped and I slowly eased myself out of the car. Standing seemed difficult. I mumbled a thank you, closed the car door and just stood there trying to settle the galloping of my heart.
A beat later I began to move. My mind slow as molasses grappling with where I was and what I was called to this place to do. I rounded the corner and there was a plaza laid out before me, the entrance to the museum straight ahead, while to my right stretching the length of the plaza was the Lorraine Motel. What color its walls were I could not say, as all I can remember is the red wreath hanging from the second floor balcony marking the spot where Dr. King was shot. “I am on hallowed ground, I am performing on hallowed ground”.
I made my way slowly towards the entrance feeling reverence, deep sadness, a bottomless loss and anger. A rage at what could have been: King, Malcolm, Medgar and the countless leaders gone too soon. I moved forward angling towards a raised granite slab positioned just opposite that blood red wreath, I read the inscription, placed my hand upon it and prayed. I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for being alive and free in this moment, I gave thanks for those who gave their lives for my freedom, I gave thanks for every ancestor who made a way for me, I gave thanks for the honor and privileged to be an artist, I asked for strength to tell the stories I was here to tell, I prayed for the capacity to hold space for all the lives that would be shared with me and I prayed for the wisdom to plant seeds of healing for our communities. As I finished I turned and saw an older brother watching me with a slight smile on his face. We acknowledged each other with a slight tip of our heads in the special way that black men do. I then walked inside the museum...ready.
Any anxiety I’d had about not having been in the performance space before, meeting the production folks for the first time or lingering exhaustion melted away. I was met by stage manager, James Cook and we jumped into the fastest tech I’d ever experienced. The show was a blur of focused intensity with me just holding on for dear life.
The intimacy of a one-person show always leaves me surprised and slightly overwhelmed. It's like standing naked in a crowded room. It's an invitation to others to examine your most vulnerable places. It’s also a very powerful place if you can compel the hearts behind the eyes to see you fully and climb aboard for the ride. There are indications that you sometimes see and feel when the audience is with you. There’s a quality to the silence, nuanced physicality, cosigning side effects and laughter in the right and wrong places. This audience was with me, They’d accepted the invitation.
As the show ended and as the lights came up, I made my way back to the stage to start the second act of the performance...the talkback. I was fortunate to have the support of Daniel Banks, a dear friend and colleague who’d agreed to assist me in facilitating the post show conversation. Daniel, who runs an amazing organisation called DNA Works, just happened to be attending the festival. I was looking forward to a workshop on hip hop theatre that he would be facilitating for college students the following day.
He helped us transition out of the show and bound us together with breath and focused intention, where the real work begins. The hour that I spend alone on stage is just a warm up to get us to a place where as a community we can have the hard conversations about how to stop Gender Based Violence. For three days, I performed this show and held these conversations.
Each night, people opened themselves to each other, spoke about moments in the show that touched them, and made them reflect on their own personal experiences with violence. They spoke of secrets seldom shared and the shame, anger, and confusion associated with those memories. There were men who spoke of how difficult it was to talk about what the play reveals, because it's just to painful. Women spoke of how heartbreaking and informative to witness one male character grappling with the rape of his daughter. A man spoke about his lifelong fear of raising his son and getting it wrong because he hadn't had a father to teach him how to grow into a man. There were people who spoke about how damaging family secrets can be. They spoke of the responsibility of the community and the disconnect between young and old. They shared stories of personal trauma and sexual violence visited on their own bodies.
As always in these conversations, the voice of women was the most vocal and the frequency and severest violence was most often visited upon their bodies. We talked about solutions, actions we could all take in our spheres of knowing. In the midst of it all I was struck by how hungry people were to have this conversation. Memphis, unfortunately like so many other places across the globe is suffering an epidemic of violence that leaves nobody untouched, whether it's out in the open or skulking in the shadows.
With this festival Hattiloo Theatre and its partners had created a unique space in modern black theatre that allowed art as activism to be at the forefront of theatre-making. It felt like a continuum in the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. In addition to the performances, they also programmed a one-day HBCU Theatre Conference for undergraduate students enrolled in regional HBCUs. The conference included intergenerational panels with legends in American Theatre, skills development and knowledge sharing workshops, tours, film screenings, and networking opportunities. All three of my performances took place in the auditorium of the National Civil Rights Museum and everyday I gave thanks. The staff at the museum and those at Hattiloo Theatre created a warm and welcoming environment that permeated my entire visit to Memphis.
The city was just as embracing as I found out when I stumbled into Deja Vu (thanks to Daniel Banks and Alexis Miles), a gem of Louisiana Creole cuisine in downtown Memphis. The hostess greeted us with the warm familiarity of a cousin. We settled in to peruse the menus while reflecting on the night's performance. I had my mouth fixed for a number of creole vegetarian options, but was left wanting. I called over our waitress with a complaint on my lips while she wore a ready smile on hers. I immediately turned discord to charm and she answered with an easy wit as she offered to call over the Chef Gary.
A few minutes later he was at our table and my new best friend, a native of New Orleans with a big heart and red beans and rice that would make your momma weep. It also turns out we were both alumni of Southern University (Baton Rouge). We laughed, took photos and reminisced about days on the “Yard”. We talked about “The Human Jukebox” (our school's marching band), the sense of community and the beautiful solitude of standing on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi as the sunset. That night I slept well, belly full, spirit charged, and mind full of the synchronicity of life.
Written sitting by the Mississippi River in Memphis, TN
I walked along the Mississippi this morning and wondered about Langston's rivers. I heard the bubbling cacophony of Beale Street at the back of my mind. I wondered at the rivers of people that have sailed up and down the Mississippi. Flowing through the streets of Memphis depositing life and flavor in every inch of these cobblestone streets. These streets are alive and I feel them in me. The river pulls at me, yanks me out of my bed and steers me down Monroe Street until I feel the breeze like a hand maiden pushing me ever forward. I feel Langston's rivers flowing through my body. How many generations are packed into these veins?
And there she sits wide and deep. Dark brown waters so different from the clear warm currents of the Atlantic. Chocolate baby grown strong on beaches of South Florida. Those waters pulled at me in a more ethereal sense like God running his/her hand along the side of my face. The Mississippi speaks like spirits trying to be understood, like omens of what's to come. That is the nature of the south histories locked into soil, bodies and rivers. Here upon these banks at this bend, the new tries to settle into memory. The fit is precarious. We teeter on the edge until the bones are cast, blood is paid and the waters say all is ok. All is ok.
(artist +activist) uses his/her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary