Put Your Feet on the Ground and Breathe

Article by Sydette Harry; Photographs by Christine Jean Chambers


“Here’s your CHANCE!” In Some Other Kid by A. Rey Pamatmat, the first play in Facing Our Truth: Ten Minute Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege at the National Black Theatre, a young boy puts on a hoodie to remove himself selectively so his friend can have a moment to pitch some woo at their female friend, a bright determined young activist who stickers things to show the power of love and dreams. He never comes back. The gasps that come when he slips on a hoodie speak to our new conditioning. We know what it means when the shots ring out. His friends don’t. Some Other Kid ends with his friends rising from mourning his body, showing the power stickers, forever changed. It has brought them together holding hands, hoping for better – but what does that look like? What does that look like for us all?

As the audience entered the showing three projectors flash photos from marches and rallies around the murder of Trayvon on three walls of the space. The rage, sorrow, and above all support are astounding. That we have lost something significant is never doubted. Surrounding the stage it anchors the physical space as a platform for something significant. What we are about to see comes from a moment of great power – cities were stopped, Times Square flooded, grown men wept in the streets – it had to be earth shattering.

It is and it isn’t and it’s that much more difficult for it. A collection of six plays divided evenly between directors Alex Alvin Jr. and Ebony Noelle Golden, the moments in Facing Our Truth are devastatingly average. But we know better. The infamous hoodie is now a signal. One small piece of clothing lets us know this won’t be okay. The large events and sweeping rallies set the stage for the smallest of moments, the day to day activities that acts of violence and systemic oppression disrupt. Hanging out with friends, preparing for a new baby, the famously touchy NYC commute. It’s the little things that come back and terrify you, in how much they tell us about the systems and coping mechanisms developed around race in America.

In Dominique Morisseau’s Night Visions, an expectant couple argues about witnessing an act of violence against a woman, by an assailant lit only by street lamp. As black people, they volley back and forth about what should have been done, about who saw what and, ultimately, about are they sure. Even though the colors of the hoodie they argue about are green and red, the wife still doesn’t want her husband to go out in a black hoodie. She isn’t sure and she didn’t stop and she wasn’t sure the assailant was black but she said so. If she wouldn’t stop to think, will someone stop for her husband?

In Mona Mansour’s Dressing the futility of that question is take to a heart breaking non-answer. Itdoesn’t work at all, it doesn’t save a thing. But watching a heartbreaking and heartbroken mother wonder if maybe it could have helped, is it really so bad to try? What exactly are the remedies when, as stated in Marcus Gardley’s No More Monsters, The Black Male is the Great American Sacrifice and someone “can stand his ground on your dead black corpse?”

What is magnificent about the power of theatre is how much it unites us in our desire to answer or at least break apart these challenging questions. When Jonathon McCrory, director of the Theatre Arts Program at NBT asks the audience to breathe together, it cuts to the question we are all asking. How do we, with our feet on the ground and the truth in the world, breathe while black? In a talk back led by Darlene Nipper and Russell G. Jones, an audience member points to the intraracial conflict in Winter Miller’s Colored over what is “good blackness.” Another audience member reminds the space that being “good” didn’t stop racialized discrimination in employment, what does good get you? A third audience member reminds us that we forget that we may not like the overloud talking or the cursing but that as adults we are struggling with processing how to live in a racist society, what do we expect from children? They may be disrespectful, but they are also targets.

A chance. The larger social themes seem almost inconsequential when faced with the ten-minute moments of chances that murdered youth will not have. The plays function like that much needed breath. How do we live? When does it end? The trial of the man who shot and killed Jordan Davis for playing rap music too loud ended in a hung jury. Renisha McBride’s trial will begin in the summer. The names of children snuffed out like lights. Not easy or perfect but human and now gone. In the only play that directly mentions the trial, Ballad of Zimmerman by Dan O’Brien, the rapid-fire dance and listing of details of Trayvon’s life alternate with his murderer’s in a dance. He smoked weed and he saved his father’s life. He was suspended and he didn’t want to endanger his little brother by leading George Zimmerman to his home. He was a beautiful human boy, and he never will have his chance.

It is not the huge things but the little ones. The first love, the praying grandma, we keep going, we survive. Sit in front of it, sit in the middle of it. Put your feet on the ground and breathe.

Here’s Our Chance.


Sydette Harry is a writer/performer/theorist/. She tweets and blogs as Blackamazon, and performs with The Body Ecology Performance Ensemble.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.