“When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted, and black
Your soul’s intact”
—Nina Simone, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”
At the beginning of the Seattle opening of Power last Thursday night, co-producer C. Davida Ingram made the intentions of the participants clear: “This is not an opportunity to consume Black pain.”
Instead, what if theatre offered not entertainment, but testimony, witness, transformation and a path toward justice? Through her show Power, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors challenges the conventions of theatre to create a space for Black healing and a rejection of white supremacy and state violence. Between Oct. 20–22, in partnership with Intiman Theatre at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, Power featured the stories of nine local African-American community members.
“We need to heal from the trauma of state violence. It lives in our bones. It’s a collective trauma and this piece offers some reprieve. Some justice where justice was never offered,” Cullors says in a later interview.
“I think artists have a social responsibility,” she continues. “We offer a perspective that calls for the transformation of the place we live in. My art is politicized/healing art, I’m invested in the people I make art with. It’s not about the product per se, but the process.”
Cullors created and developed the piece during an artist residency at Kalamazoo College in 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Working with the Kalamazoo College’s Black Student Union and a local Black community center, eight people were cast to tell their personal stories of experiences with state violence.
“I knew that I wanted each performance to be site-specific,” Cullors says. “I didn’t want a traveling cast. I wanted each city to have its own crew of Black folks. And I wanted to develop the piece in community. I didn’t want it to be isolated from the current movement work happening inside of Kalamazoo.”
Cullors says while she developed the piece she read the 1951 We Charge Genocide document, which called upon the United Nations to hold the U.S. to account: “We maintain, therefore, that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.”
“I was struck by the urgency in the document and how much it resonated during this time,” Cullors says. “ I wanted to tell the story about Black folks surviving state violence. We can be so obsessed with Black Death we forget to lift up the living.”
Cast member Yirim Seck and creator/director Patrisse Cullors.
Power opens with Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Performers take the stage and share their birthdays, racial identification and personal gender pronouns. One by one, they share very personal, often painful, stories of state violence and criminalization. In the Seattle show, cast member Yirim Seck shared his story of a frightening altercation and arrest by police near Pike Place Market. In another section, Hodan Hassan shared her experience as a Muslim-American Black woman and being targeted by the TSA during a school trip.
These stories, told plainly and with great vulnerability, created a deeply moving intimacy with the audience. The performers did not “act” their stories, which forced the audience to engage not as observers but simply as other humans, listening and trying to hear each other’s experience.
“I was keenly aware of the wounds from my performers,” Cullors says. “I knew the moment they spoke and shared and named the harm so much more would come flooding out.” To support the performers, the cast spent weeks sharing their stories and processing the emotions that came with them together, in a safe, supportive, intentionally Black-centered space.
Seattle cast member Luzviminda Uzuri “Lulu” Carpenter says throughout the process of developing the show, Cullors and her co-producer, Seattle artist and activist Ingram, ensured the cast was cared for in every way.
This attention to the experience of the cast created space for catharsis, Carpenter says. “All the emotions have to rise to the surface so we can heal. The performance piece was for me really hard—it was all these feelings about ‘they aren’t going to believe me.’ I was surprised about how many people cried about my story. A lot of people cry about people dying and not about people living. My story was about the things you have to do to make yourself small so you can live. What makes us tired is that we have to make ourselves so small in order for us not to be f-ked with in order to not be killed.”
Working with Cullors was inspiring, Carpenter says. “I am really grateful for people who experience state violence to get a platform, and it’s a reminder of what a true leader of movements Patrisse is. Because what she does as a leader is bring forth the voices of others, not only her own. The more we honor her as a leader, the more we honor ourselves, because she will bring our voices with her. It’s very humbling and it gives me hope for our generation carrying forth a different type of civil rights movement.”
Creating intentional space centering the experiences of Black people was a critical part of creating a space of healing for Black artists. Cullors says this is pivotal. “We have to invest in Black artists and Black spaces if we want to interrupt the whiteness of the art world. We have to invest resources, time, energy into Black folks.”
There is a special role for art and culture to play in the Black Lives Matter movement and all movements for justice, Cullors says. “We have the folks who are fighting for better legislation. Folks who are trying to change laws. The folks who are trying to work within the system to make things just a little bit better. But artists can bend reality. Artists often hold the vision for the impossible. We dare to dream. Big, full and authentic dreams. We can be the shapeshifters.”