When A Theater Festival Ministers To A Playwright
By Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD
Four days after my play TANGLED opened a successful two-month run at eta Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago, I got an email inviting me to participate in the DC Black Theatre Festival 2012. However, this was not my first rodeo.
Since I finished writing TANGLED in late August 2009, this tumbleweed of a play has continued to make it’s way around the country. It opened at a New York reading (2010). Then, it was used at a course text in Champaign, Illinois (2010). Later it was a liturgical source at a Chicago school of theology (2011). Subsequently, it was recognized at a North Carolina festival (2011), staged on a Chicago University campus (2011), a pulpit in Champaign for an African American Read-In (2012) before a full production was staged in Chicago (2012)….and now an invite to a Washington DC theatre festival.
Now at a time when life can’t get much busier---or more costly---it seemed risky, foolhardy, even indulgent to leave my 10-month-old baby and busy husband to follow this play…again…a play that costs money every time I board a plane, take a taxi or bed down in a hotel in a new city.
Nonetheless, I set aside some resources to travel to DC. Despite the expense, in my gut---for whatever reason---going to the reading seemed like the right thing to do. Yet, arriving in DC in the middle of a DC heatwave was somehow fitting. It was cosmic payback for spending “good” money on another TANGLED foray.
So, I made the most of the three day visit in the sweltering DC heat. I took tours, hung out with my cousin, made minor personal pilgrimages to beloved DC spots, connected with a wonderful new friend, and saw a festival play---all done in order to shut out my pre-reading anxiety.
Generally, TANGLED had been well received in previous readings and productions, but I worried about DC. Will there be an appetite for a play with presidential critique---especially on the heels of landmark legislation just two days earlier? How will the use of “strong” language be received? Sure, scores of people in Chicago die by the tens weekly with even more wounded, but would residents of “the DMV”---DC, Maryland Virginia---care?
Ironically, the evening I arrived and the day of the healthcare victory and Attorney General contempt vote, I decided to do a DC By Night Tour. My head was buzzing and I figured it would help me kill time, get my bearings and some exercise before my cousin arrived the next day, and stave off any homesickness that might creep up on me. Per usual, the tour stopped at the White House for 30 minutes and the bus emptied as we all sauntered over to peek through the front gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To my UTTER SHOCK AND AMAZEMENT, there THEY were: THE FIRST FAMILY! THE OBAMA FAMILY: President, First Lady, First Daughters Sasha & Malia out strolling casually on the driveway in front of the White House. I could even see the First Lady was wearing a red and black dress, the President his standard White shirt and blue tie and the girl wearing their hair braided back in tops and shorts. Then the President lifted his arm to wave to the crowd as the First Lady hurried off with the girls trotting behind them.
THIS was so unexpected. I WAS DUMBFOUNDED---OF ALL THE CRAZY LUCK!!! I was in town to do a reading of a play about gun violence in OUR hometown---mine and the FIRST FAMILY’S--- and I stumble upon the first family on a tour. So of course I have to snap a photo to document the event (see photo above).
Now, as you can see, my angle is a bit cock-eyed. That is because no sooner than this photo was snapped did I hear “MOVE! MOVE! NOW! LET’S GOOOOO! Suddenly, I felt the crowd pushing rightward against me. Two secret service police on bikes were forcing the crowd to disperse IMMEDIATELY. MOVE! LET’S GO! THE TOUR IS CLOSED! YOU CAN’T BE HERE! YOU MUST LEAVE NOW! LET’S GO! CLEAR THE AREA NOWWWWWWWWWWW!!! So we all moved away from the gates excited, shocked to have “seen Obama…wait till I tell everyone back home” one man crowed in the dispersing crowd, the police scowling fiercely as they herded us onward.
What a moment: both thrilling and worrisome. It was indeed exciting to see the First Family on White House grounds. Yet, it was disconcerting to consider JUST HOW CLOSE we all were---armed only with cameras thankfully---to the White House before we were “removed” from the premises.
As I strolled back to the bus anxious to call Mama and my husband to share my glimpse of the Obamas, I felt like crossing paths with the First Family was a good omen that the production had their blessing somehow.
Then, two days later, on the morning of the reading, we awoke to hear that the city and surrounding area had been hit by a rare summer storm called a “derecho” resulting in downed trees and power lines leaving millions without power. Our hotel wasn’t affected in the least, but friends who we were to meet with lost power; or were completely stranded and unable to meet us. Yep, cosmic reminder #2 that: 1.) My notion of the Presidential blessing on the production MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TAD PREMATURE and 2.) This might not have been the best time for a trip to DC.
Then, on the morning of the reading, we awoke to hear that the city and surrounding area had been hit by a rare summer storm called “a derecho” resulting in downed trees and power lines leaving millions without power. Our hotel wasn’t affected in the least, but friends who we were to meet with lost power; or were completely stranded and unable to meet us. Yep, cosmic reminder #2 that this might NOT have been the best time for a trip.
Thus, on that fateful night, my cousin and I staggered up the near-vertical hill to Howard University’s Blackburn Center moments before the reading was to begin. Sweat-soaked and breathless as we paused near the top, I wondered: WHAT ARE WE EVEN DOING HERE? PEOPLE ARE STRANDED IN SWELTERING HEAT ALL OVER THE REGION. WOULD ANYONE ELSE EVEN BE HERE? Yet, we pressed on…as we’d come too far to turn back now...and the taxi had long since pulled of anyhow.
When we finally arrived at the room where the TANGLED reading was being held, the room was warm and the crowd was sparse. Ok, cosmic reminder #3 that some readings of TANGLED can indeed go on without you. Nonetheless, my cousin and I made it with just enough time to greet a friend and we scampered into our seats mere moments before the performance began. We were briefly acknowledged by the director and the play unfolded before us all.
To my utter amazement, as the room became more and more populated, TANGLED---this story of a family negotiating gun violence--- captivated again. A growing audience laughed at the humorous passages, gasped at heartbreaking events and groaned in affirmation of truths revealed.
Yet, the post-show talkback revealed why the sacrifices made to be present for TANGLED audiences MATTER. During the Q & A is where folks discussed horrible personal connections to gun violence. It was HERE where the audience remembered students, relatives, friends gunned down or living with the physical and emotional scars of gun violence. It was HERE---amidst the Q & A--- where the audience members discussed scenes from the play that moved them, mattered to them, triggered something within them.
And in those moments, I understood my greater purpose: BEARING WITNESS and SITTING WITH those suffering from gun violence was a part of the fabric of this play.
Gun violence is so pervasive, so prevalent, so horribly mundane in daily American life. We hear about incidents daily, sigh, shake our heads and then quickly move on to weather, sports, traffic and the vitally important red carpet premiere or celebrity break-up. Yet, continued interest in TANGLED affirms our communal need to sit still, breathe, feel and process how gun violence is decimating our communities, our relationships and impacting how we relate to one another.
One of the actors shared: “this play mattered to me because too many of us in the Black community suffer from post-traumatic SLAVERY disorder…and we really need to grieeeeeeeve this thing…the effects of gun violence." He then looked down at the floor as the room fell silent digesting his words.
Another actor spoke of her three college friends ---one killed, one wounded and one jailed because of gun crime involvement. Between cast, playwright, director and audience, the talkback rippled with observations, analysis, suggestions, compliments on the play and requests to bring the play to various other cities and organizations. The night ended with me awash in a sea of tearful hugs and kisses, thanks, business cards, contact info on my notes and appreciation pressed into my hand.
After a closing conversation and thanks to the director, my cousin and I staggered off-campus praying to find a street with available taxis to take us back to our hotel. As we waited for an available taxi and swatted mosquitoes, I was overwhelmed at how kind, how sweet, how supportive folks were who attended the reading and how much TANGLED mattered for them. Such kindness washed away my earlier anxieties about the expense, the sacrifice, the relevance of the project for East Coast audiences and the challenges the text might pose to the audience in this election year.
Consequently, this reading at Howard University as part of the DC Black Theatre Festival mattered and ministered TO ME most of all. Despite the intense heat and the “derecho”, forty or fifty of us did gather to sit around the proverbial “campfire” to listen to the most recent chapter of folks trading guns and ammo for Africans lives.
The earnestness of the audience reminded me that our stories matter and that we need to hear our stories now more than ever. And if I am willing to go to tell the story, the Lord will take care of the rest and encourage my soul in the process---despite distance, a tough economy or even natural disaster.
In closing, I thank my husband Domonic for his enduring belief in this work and in me…and for tending to our sweet baby in my absence. I thank my cousin Joyce for coming to offer counsel, laughter, perspective and assistance. I thank my dear sisterfriends from Chicago---Marcia, Cathie and Courtney--- for offering good will, support and sistership in DC. Finally, I thank Professor Renee Charlow and the DC Black Theatre Festival for having a heart for this play…and for gathering us together to share stories to aid us in healing our communities.
---Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD
Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD, Educator, Playwright & Founder of Samaritan Road Productions is the author of the SRP blog "Writing On The Go"