by Lola E. Peters
The last rehearsal before performance is always filled with energy. For many in the cast of Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied, this will be their first public performance; their first time publicly telling their story; their first time specifically naming the individuals and institutions that were complicit in their oppression.
In this moment, though, they are gathered around a U-shaped configuration of tables, in the windowless West Room, downstairs at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, eating dinner together. Co-producer C. Davida Ingram captures the “this looks just like Thanksgiving, y’all” moment with a cellphone photo.
Luzviminda (Lulu) Carpenter starts singing. Akilah and Monique Franklin join in. They switch songs. Others sing along. Soon it becomes a full-voiced, rousing a’capella chorus. Laughter. Another song. And another. The energy is vibrant, living, almost a thing of its own, binding together individuals who were strangers just a few weeks ago. There is community here.
Community is the intention, according to Ms. Ingram. It’s a word she repeats often. “We want to use the raw, tender, power of these stories to show the resilience that’s possible in a loving, supportive, accountable community,” she tells me. “This production is a love letter to the community.”
Soon the stage manager calls everyone back to the tasks at hand and director Patrisse Khan-Cullors gives cast members instructions for rehearsal. She tells them this will not be a full rehearsal. She wants them to go home and rest, so tonight’s rehearsal will be short. She, too, is tired and needs the rest. In small groups, cast members leave the small studio and make their way upstairs to the performance hall.
The stage is bare except for a podium and microphone downstage right and a tall stool upstage left. The stage is dark. Lighting is focused on the individual stairways of the theater.
The cast quickly lines up on both sides of the top tier of each stairway. They chatter about how they’re aligned, what to do next, what cues to listen for. Khan-Cullors interrupts them with further instructions. Only three people will tell their full stories during this rehearsal, the rest will walk to the mic, speak the last sentence of their story, and walk off stage. She gives several people reminders about pacing and energy and introduces a slight change from their prior rehearsal.
Khan-Cullors stands at the top of the performance hall, unseen. She begins a poem. The cast descends slowly down the staircase. They reach the bottom just before the poem ends. As Khan-Cullors finishes the recitation, they move onto the stage, greet one another, and take their places. One at a time, they move to the microphone to tell their stories. In between, a video introduces other stories from around the country.
Their stories are as diverse as their lives. There is no monolithic Black life, but each of these lives have been informed and changed by interaction with institutions that devalue their lives based solely on their skin color.
“Who are you doing this for?” I ask Khan-Cullors. I am skeptical of people of color in Seattle baring their souls to yet another White audience who will feel sympathy, but do nothing to change the structures that enable the consistent outcomes.
“The participants. The participants first, the Black community, and then the audience,” is her reply. Khan-Cullors is implementing her historic #BlackLivesMatter activism through her profession as a theater artist, a director. Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied, for her, is about the process of telling the stories to stir action that will ripple throughout a community and create change.
Like Valerie Curtis-Newton, Intiman’s other partner, Ingram and Khan-Cullors present their work to be viewed through a Black lens. They want to amplify the work of organizations and individuals who are already providing pathways of resilience to people who have been institutionally criminalized and abused; to celebrate that resilience; to spotlight the real, long-term, human impacts of those institutional abuses; to spur everyone to put an end to them. Like Ingram, Khan-Cullors believes art is an imperative component in activism. This is her contribution.
In the closing circle of the rehearsal, she reminds everyone to sleep well. She tells them, “Laugh as much as you can tomorrow. Laugh hard.”
Tonight’s first presentation of Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied is sold out. Friday’s performance is nearly sold out. An additional presentation has been added for 2pm on Saturday afternoon.
Featured image courtesy of Intiman Theatre