Are we learning anything? How being cast in a Hollywood play helped me clarify our existing racial tension.
The 1960’s were an era full of conflict, corruption, violence, racism, and greed. It was also some of the first nationally broadcasted problems of America’s moral issues and deep racial divides.
I had the pleasure in being cast as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Daniel Henning’s play, “The Tragedy of JFK (as told by William Shakespeare).” Henning is the artistic director of The Blank Theater, one of the oldest resident theaters in Hollywood, CA. He conceived, adapted, and directed this play that is rooted in the text of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The concept Henning put forth is that Caesar’s tragic plot is stunningly similar to the Kennedy assassination and it’s aftermath.
After beginning my family, I am fortunate to be making my personal return to stage with such an amazing show. The process was like no other I have experienced. As a cast, we began the rehearsal process with a 6-hour rehearsal day getting “de-programed” on everything we thought we knew about the assassination of our 35th president. Under Daniel’s guidance and tutelage, (he is a recognized expert in the John F. Kennedy assassination) we trudged through facts and information that was extremely difficult for us to come to terms with. It raised questions and disbelief that none of us were really ready for. When you start to uncover information about your country that’s erroneous, redacted, falsified, or covered-up, it’s more than disheartening. It’s mind blowing. (The Tragedy of JFK runs until November 6th, 2016. Tickets are available at www.theblank.com.)
That rehearsal enlightened us to the information we didn’t know — that was already like drinking through a fire hose. Next, we had to re-discover the known facts that are widespread about the 1960’s including Vietnam, communism, and mass corruption. Finally, civil rights, and everything associated with it. Marches, freedom rides, sit-ins, church bombings, murders, riots, and bloody beatings began my personal “light” research. Some brightness glared through the darkness; one being the man I portray in this play — Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.
King was a national hero of almost mythic proportions. Rightfully so, the man accomplished more when he was assassinated at the age of 39 than most of us do in a lifetime. I guess such a turbulent era cranks out young voices with wisdom beyond their years. Case in point, African-American leaders Malcolm X and Medgar Evers were 39 and 37, respectively, when they were murdered as well. President Kennedy (46), along with his brother, 42-year-old Robert Kennedy, were both gunned down as well. These prominent leaders were known not only for civil rights but their dedication to the rights and social advancement of African-Americans.
King was at another level in regards to stature and recognition. As I researched the books, the speeches, the movies, and the television shows, I became frustrated.
· I was frustrated with how relevant his teachings are today.
· I am frustrated with institutionalized racism.
· I am frustrated with overt, covert, or unknowing racism from individuals.
· I am frustrated with the lack of justice and streams of social commentary on the waves of murders of unarmed or mentally limited African-American men and it wounds me deeply.
· I am frustrated by the “blind” retaliation on good, hardworking, police officers that have been demonized as a collective group.
· I am frustrated by strategic limitations that may be necessary to put on my son to make sure he returns safely during his young adulthood.
Some individuals are completely oblivious to real issues that have continued to specifically plague the black community since the 1960’s. Dr. King and President Kennedy emphasized these injustices as “moral issues” that should be recognized by the entire country. Robert F. Kennedy and President Johnson also recognized them as well and knew they must be addressed. Those were key leaders that held the torch for that struggle. I guess my question becomes: why did they speak out on these issues and make the effort to create legislation to curb it? Was it solely because they saw it dividing and destroying our country? Perhaps they really see the affects of inequality on their fellow American citizens? Were they doing it just to remain in power or strategically place themselves politically? Whatever you believe the answer is to the question, the point is this: Eventually, they were invested in doing whatever they could to increase equality between blacks and whites.
Today, some sixty odd years later, I speak to you as an African American male in regards to this proposed equality that still, does not exist. Equality has increased and has gotten better, but it does not exist. When I can have a conversation with my non-African American friends and share with them the anxiety I have about walking into certain stores, strolling in certain neighborhoods, or the possibility of losing my life over a minor traffic infringement; they DO NOT share the same fears. That ain’t equality folks. It may not be as overt as the discrimination and segregation that existed in the 60’s, but it’s certainly as oppressing.
Since racism is not overtly ingrained in the infrastructure of our society like the 60’s, I believe it’s been glanced over, often trivialized, and re-invented (i.e. mass incarceration). Society has concluded that racism is an abhorrent moral issue. Theoretically, everyone knows and agree it’s inherently wrong. However, society, by now casting doubt onto individual’s personal experiences, mute victim’s audible cries of racist behavior. And with lack of clear-cut racist procedures like segregation still being practiced, there are no unifying standards on what constitutes “racist” behavior. Heartfelt cries of injustice are now questioned and diminished to, “a personal perspective” rather than seen as racial prejudice. Retorts to what I, or others, believe to be racist behavior now sound like, “I don’t know if that store owner was really paying more attention to you because you’re black, I think that’s just your perception” or “I know the video shows he was shot, but his behavior deviated from how someone who’s innocent behaves.” One’s perspective or reality is much more subjective and open for argument once the issue is now downgraded from what used to be a hard lined “moral issue.”
This is where we become divided. Now we revert back to the 1960’s where in his profound speech, “The three evils of society” Dr. King warns:
“… For the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists. Racism can well be that corrosive evil that would bring down the curtain on western civilization.”
Maybe its no longer a “moral issue” like it was in the 60’s. Maybe now it’s just a “heart issue.” I define heart issue here as a true lack of caring and empathy for individuals or groups of individuals. Maybe that has deterred our country’s progress in present race and police relations. I don’t know. I do know we all have voices and platforms to be able to bring the change we would like to see.
I am appreciative of art because it really can change things. This play has had a profound affect on my cast mates and I through research we’ve done and individual conversations we’ve shared. I mentioned to a cast mate to take away all the politics people put on issues; all lives do matter. However, if all lives matter and we were all equal, we would all be fighting to return home safe after being stopped for a busted taillight. The fact that it’s only me who’s petrified and most of my White cast mates aren’t means we are NOT equal. If you believe that “All lives matter” then my black life — that is statistically proven to be extinguished at a greater rate in an unarmed capacity than any other life — should be the first life to matter. If it’s not, then I believe we are back to a heart issue.
Fortunately, the one on one conversation has been helpful for my cast mates and I. Needed dialogue and communication truly begins. These theater communities are microcosms of society at large. They represent the diverse array of individuals who should be engaging in the dialogue. In our cast alone, we’ve got blacks and whites, males and females, old and young, gay and straight, Americans and foreigners, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, former police, and former military. If that doesn’t represent America, I don’t know what does. Although these are hard conversations, they need to be had. They need to be had to refute common misbeliefs and ideas that we ALL have.
This is why conversations need to be had personally and on a larger scale. My mind regarding the issue has been opened by quite a few of my cast mates. The upside, as well as the downside, that comes with shootings of innocent unarmed black men or good policemen, is that we are now forced to create a dialogue as a result of this madness. Without such dialogue the destruction of our society starts to happen with things like riots and mass killings. As Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” That doesn’t condone a riot or a mass killing however, left unchecked and unaddressed, these happenings occur more frequently.
All that research leads my personal conclusion: a single monolithic movement for everyone concerned with injustice would help our current situation. I’m not sure how that would be done but in the 60’s it happened by collecting momentum. Injustices were spread all across the country just like today. The movements to address these injustices were localized to start. It took time and a series of events to get to what most people saw as the momentum shift — the march on Washington for jobs and freedom. We had a boycott here, a sit-in there. Then, the integration of southern schools and freedom rides became prevalent. Some actions were more successful than others. Most actions did bring attention to issues. Then individuals (regardless how you feel about them) such as King, Abernathy, X, Lewis, Newton, Davis, Carmichael — the list goes on and on — started to unify. Ultimately, the marches on Selma and Washington joined together with the unification of leaders and people led to the realization and implementation of civil and voting rights laws.
I really hope that we learned from the 60’s. At today’s dizzying pace, I hope we don’t need more individuals and groups of individuals to get killed to finally come together. Dr. King warns us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Maybe enough of us can finally agree on some basic standards and regulations needing to be put forth in our communities and congress. Most importantly these standards and regulations need to address oversights and abuses of power. If and when that legislation is put forth, we will have laws that our judiciary branch can now enforce (hopefully without bias or prejudice). Appropriate recourse can now exist for actions taken by individuals and/or groups who don’t think twice about their actions or aren’t open to change their heart. I believe that process starts to show we are unified in justice prevailing. Unifying on justice starts to connect us all at a heart level. We then again begin changing the moral fabric of our country for the better.