by Artistic Affiliate Ella Mock
In 1914, Cabiria became the first film to be screened at the White House. An Italian-made cinematic epic, the first film to use tracking shots, it was a landmark in film artistry. The subject: the Roman empire at its glorious height, conquering the savages of North Africa, who were hell-bent on war and child sacrifice. Woodrow Wilson and his family lounged on the White House porch and watched in awe as the lights flickered past them across the lawn, entranced.
The following year, the first American-made film was shown at the White House. The thematic elements were devastatingly similar to the first. National pride, an empire torn, a beautiful white girl to rescue; the hearts of white viewers across the country were won. For many southerners, it was proof that they were the victims of the unjust demands of reparations. It reinforced black stereotypes, (like the faithful mammy and the sexual predator of white women, all played by white actors in blackface), and introduced new dangers; freedmen suppressing white voters and gaining political power. The threat was clear- democracy was on the line, and black people were the enemy.
1915, The Birth of a Nation made its debut. Millions of people saw the film, earning it a gross of about $90 million in today's money. In November of the same year the Ku Klux Klan redoubled with newfound support.
Also 1915, W. E. B. Dubois, co-founder of the NAACP, saw the need for a new tactic after protests of the film failed to dissuade white audiences. The Drama Committee was created, with a call for black playwrights. It was clear what art could do to a nation, and Dubois intended to use art to empower the oppressed. In August 1916, he wrote the article The Drama Among Black Folk in the NAACP newsletter, The Crisis.
"...a new and inner demand for Negro drama has arisen which is only partially satisfied by the vaudeville actors. Today in Harlem it is being curiously supplied by setting companies of colored actors to playing recent Broadway successes … The next step will undoubtedly be the slow growth of a new folk drama built around the actual experience of Negro American life.
...Then came my dream. It seemed to me that it might be possible with such a demonstration to get people interested in this development of Negro drama to teach on the one hand the colored people themselves the meaning of their history and their rich, emotional life through a new theatre, and on the other, to reveal the Negro to the white world as a human, feeling thing. "
That year, The Drama Committee produced Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimké, the first fully staged play by a black playwright, and the first of many "anti-lynching plays". Grimké hoped to “touch the hearts of white mothers” with a work focusing on black children. She wrote on their innocence and humanity, as well as their great susceptibility to pain, living in a racist world.
While Rachel did not garner the popularity among white Americans that Birth of a Nation did, it laid the foundation for black playwrights, especially women, to start writing for the stage. Several plays followed in Grimké's path to expose the threats the black community continued to face post-emancipation. Mary P. Burrill, in Aftermath (1919) tells the story of a black WWI soldier who comes home to find his father has been lynched. In both of Georgia Douglas Johnson's works, Blue-Eyed Black Boy (1930) and Safe (1929), the focal point is a mother's consuming fear that her son will fall victim to the next lynch-mob.
In addition, black actors were no longer subjected to solely playing maids or minstrels, or performing black "versions" of white-written shows. Rachel gave black artists permission to tell their own stories, with their own words and their own bodies. This spark of artistic self-determination would further empower black artists into the Harlem Renaissance, when The Crisis became the launching point for some of the era's greatest writers.
The impact of art is generally unpredictable when it is first created. Looking back, it's clear that art has consistently served as a vehicle for identity and cultural expression; be it that of an empire or a mother. How the participants of history respond to their circumstances is invaluable knowledge. That those participants can tell their own story is pivotal to the future's ability to understand and atone.
Isa Beaulieu is a Portland-based Radical Community Wellness practitioner who educates on herbalism, trauma-informed care, and accessibility in food and wellness.
As I begin to draft this, I am reflecting that today is Halloween. In my spiritual tradition, we call today Samhain and today is the day I honor my Ancestors. It is a day, where I give praise and thanks for the gifts I have inherited from those that came before me. My People over the Ages have origins in Indigenous America, France, Germany, Ireland, Britain, West Africa, Central Africa and South Africa. In America, they hailed from Mississippi, Canada and Massachusetts. As you can see, I have A LOT of Ancestors to feed tonight!
The notion of honoring Ancestors feels deeply complex in America, particularly as a Multiracial Woman. It’s not a practice we have adopted as a Cultural Collective. And I am guessing it is because the racial and immigration narratives of most Americans are problematic and for many, traumatic. For certain, we cannot even begin to consider a practice of Ancestor Reverence without acknowledging the bloody legacy of colonialization that created our Nation. Most Americans really struggle with recognizing that our very existence is tied to the annihilation of groups of people. We inhabit Places which carries the memories of centuries of brutality, while failing to recognize the extent that Indigenous Communities are still fighting to have their way of life respected and preserved after centuries of genocide, forced displacement, and betrayal. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, indeed.
Sadly, the idea of acknowledging our roots is often considered blasphemous to the concept of what it means to be an American! To me, this is Tragic! Without our Ancestors…their Stories, Witness and Struggles…we would not exist! And our Ancestors would cease to exist without us…through us passing on our DNA & genetics, our traditions, our folklore, our foods, etc. To honor my Ancestors as a Multiracial Woman has not been without some internal conflict. The dialogues about race in America have largely excluded the Mixed-Race Experience. In a society that praises itself on being a “Melting Pot” of Communities and Cultures, the reality is that to acknowledge that there IS a Mixed-Race Experience, again, confronts the notion of a homogeneous racial society, be that society White, Black, Asian, Indigenous, or Latin. While there can be tremendous pressure for the Mixed-Race Individual to identify as “Of Color”, there seems to be an equal amount of discouragement to own other racial identities. This has always seemed counter-intuitive to me.
Many Americans can trace their Ancestry, particularly those of European decent, to a handful of countries. And chances are they may tell tales of Ancestors who felt compelled to give up Traditions, Language, and even Names, in order, to gain acceptance as a White American. I think of my Great-Great Grandmother who emigrated to the US from Sweden: She changed her last name to make it sound “more Anglo”. And then I think of my Great-Great Grandfather, who was forced to changed his name each time he was sold as a Slave in the Deep South. The themes of migrations, struggle, loss, identity, assimilation and preservation seem to be universal. It is those themes, as a Multiracial Woman, that I chose to focus when giving praise to my People.
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Bridgette Kelly and René Johnson, who play the titular character in and direct Rachel, respectively, discuss their personal connections to the show as well as the connections they discovered between the play and its playwright, Angelina Weld Grimké.
So Bridgette, you’re playing the titular character, Rachel. When you first read the play, did you find any personal resonance or connection?
Bridgette: Absolutely. Rachel is a character that’s really palpable for me. Also because she goes through different parts of her life in the play, I see all the different progressions she goes through, I’ve also gone through, from naive innocence to having knowledge to despair, and then to finding a solution
Rachel is the season opener, setting the stage for exploring mixed-race identities throughout history. How would you say Rachel connects to the modern conception and experience of life as a mixed-race person?
Bridgette: I can only speak from my own experience as a mixed-race person, but I have always identified as a bit of a chameleon (that’s the nicest way to put it.) There’s no way to feel like you fit in any particular part of society. I grew up with mostly white people, but I spent my summers in southern Indiana, going to the boys and girls club in South Bend. I was around peers who were black, and to them, I was never “black enough”, I was like, “country”. But around my white friends, I never felt like I fit in, but I was always trying to. As a young person, I was just trying to fit, trying to fit, trying to fit. When I got older, I tried to find more things I enjoy, not necessarily trying to fit in anymore.
In terms of the play, one of the scenes, when Rachel is really young, she talks about loving black babies most because they’re, I think the word is, “pitiful”. Rachel, as a mixed person, she sees how vulnerable black children are, and wants to do something about it, she sees the injustice. That’s what I identify with most, taking a side, even though there are two sides within you. That’s how I reconcile the two sides, by focusing on POC voices.
René, you've done a lot of research on Angelina's life- what do you see her adding from her own experiences in writing Rachel?
René: I believe Grimké deployed maternalism in an effort to arouse white women's empathy for black women, because of her first hand experience, being a black child to a white mother, and being raised by white aunts. Nine months before the eradication of the 19th Amendment Grimké wrote about her personal thoughts on white women-
“Although they are beginning to awaken from one of the most conservative elements of society white women… are about the worst enemies with which the colored race has to contend. My belief was, then, that if the vulnerable point in their armor could be found, if their hearts could be active or passive enemies, they might become, at least, less inimical and possibly friendly. Did they have a vulnerable point and if so what was it? I believe it to be motherhood. Certainly all the noblest, finest, most sacred things in their lives converge about this. If anything can make all women sisters underneath their skin it is motherhood."
With Rachel, Grimké depicts tender, fully realized African American children who counter dehumanizing representations of black children. A fully human, thinking, and feeling child is ironically, in the face of racism, the greatest source of pain and vulnerability to African American families. I think she is talking about herself, and er experience of being shuffled around as the unwanted other.
Rachel was first submitted to and sponsored by the NAACP (making Grimké the first woman of color to have a play publicly performed.) Political and social commentary theatre has made huge strides thanks to various grants and commissions dedicated to highlighting writers with marginalized identities. Today, arts funding is in great danger- what do you think that means for the future of theatre like this?
Bridgette: I think it depends on who gets to see it. This type of theatre will never go away. There will always be these stories, these voices.
René: Honestly, I am not sure. For the black, brown, tan, minority, and disadvantaged communities, the fight for social and racial justice and equity is life or death. The fight will not stop because there is no funding. Social and racial equity depends on ALL understanding the importance of inclusion and representation in the arts and in our everyday communities and activities. If funding takes a nose dive I feel it is the responsibility of those who have the platforms and financial power, to tirelessly offer resources and support to those who have none of those privileges, as we tirelessly fight for our freedoms.
Rachel will run January 11th-21st with select pay-what-you-can nights at the Portland Stage Studio Theatre.
Hello dear reader,
It is so surreal to think our milestone Season 3 is nearly behind us. Our mentorship, and 501(c)(3) Comprehensive Corporate Sponsorship with the Celebration Barn Theater has been not only exciting but filled with immeasurable moments of growth, anxiety, joy, frustration, pure excitement, and unbelievable amount of love and laughter. It has been a spectacular journey exploring with artists between the ages of 5-67 to further understand who we are as Theater Ensemble of Color (TEoC) and what our mission and work is going to be in our communities. The Others, and Lived Experiences, all proved successful at the Box Office and received glowing responses from our audiences and the press.
This year we launched our monthly newsletter, we continue to teach K-12 throughout the state, our social media platforms continue to grow, we became an organization with a paid staff person, we collaborated with over thirty local artists and organizations, we served over 2000 community members, our donor base continues to expand and our fourth season auditions are looking to be very well attended. As you can imagine, this thrills me, especially since Season 4 looks like it is going to be a season of incredible depth in work, and one of a kind artist professional development offered.
Bridgette Kelly (Community Showcase Coordinator), Christina W. Richardson (Treasurer), Ella Mock (Media Liaison), Jenny Michaud (Marketing Manager), Nicolas Schroeder (Fundraising Committee Chair), Nicole Mokeme (Education Director) and I, are confident we will lead the company with skill, flair, tact, thoughtfulness, an inclusive and representative nature, and imagination. I cannot think of a better group of creators to continue to create with. This kind of support is much appreciated and tells us that we are on the right track to being a company that truly values diversity, inclusion and representation for all.
The announcement of the upcoming season is exciting, there are so many new question to think of. Will my choices appeal to our existing audiences? Will the selections attract new audiences? Will actors clamour for parts? Will directors jump at the chance to bring the scripts to life? Will those who work behind the scenes want to spend their time and energy on these productions? Is anyone else as excited about this as I am? I certainly hope so!
The plays that make up our 4th season (a one hundred year old play, a original script about Maine’s unknown black history, and several community shows) are a combination of interests and questions I have been mulling over, about Maine for decades. The new season opens on January 11th with Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimke, which will play until January 21st. A three-act play that depicts an educated and sensitive young woman who comes into an understanding of the realities of American racism. For the first production of the play, in 1920, the program read: "This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic."
The second play is actually a series, with four shows at the end of each month, of originally devised work that is coming out of the professional development track from February to May 2018. These shows will be a representation of the work created within that month by the performers.
The third production, A Meal for Malaga, running July 2018 is a glorious original TEoC script diving into what might have happened off the coast of Maine, near Brunswick, in one of the largest mixed race communities in the country, when their residents were forcibly removed from their homes by the Governor. It was first workshopped in front of an audience in 2016.
I hope very much you will enjoy the plays we are offering this season. All of Theater Ensemble of Color’s productions are immensely grateful for your ongoing support and encouragement and I look forward to seeing you at our next event.
René Goddess Johnson
Interviews and information on artistic happenings in Portland, maine