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The Death of Michael Brown Takes Center Stage at National Black Theatre

By Gustavo Solis | February 12, 2015 2:19pm
 A new performance workshop reflects on what it means to be a black man in America following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
'Hands Up'
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HARLEM — There is a disclaimer before the start of a new production opening Thursday night at the National Black Theatre

“What you are about to hear will not be pleasant for your ears,” says actor Joshua Boone, before performing a monologue about being harassed by the police.

During the performance, Boone tells the story of being stopped by officers in Pittsburgh and having a gun shoved in his face multiple times because he fit the description of a suspect.

Although Boone, who has appeared in "Law & Order," is an actor, the words he speaks come from playwright and actor Nathan James, who played an unnamed police officer on "The Wire" and based the monologue on his real-life experiences.

That is just one of six testaments that make up "Hands Up: 6 Playwrights|6 Testaments." The show is meant be a reflection on the shooting of Michael Brown and offer a glimpse into what it means to be a black man in America, said director Jonathan McCrory, who is also the director of the theater arts program at the National Black Theatre.

The six pieces show different perspectives like having to smile as a defense mechanism to seem less threatening to strangers, or how having a light complexion can be an advantage in life, or the difficulty of bringing a child into the world knowing he will be a target.

"The production gives the community the opportunity to hear the confusion and the anxiety, the heart-wrenching reality that black males in our community are dealing with," McCrory said.

The "Hands Up" pieces were originally intended to be separate readings. But after the death of Eric Garner, organizers decided to turn the project into a larger production and incorporate it into the theater’s Black History Month programing, the director added.

The performance feels like you are part of a support group for black men. Six men are sitting in stools behind a podium taking turns walking up and sharing their story. Portraits of black men and women killed by police hover over them.

When each performer steps onto the stage — an octagon filled with dirt — it is as if they enter a sacred space free of judgment, according to McCrory. There the actors are free to share.

“I think a lot of the time the conversations we are hearing are about policy and laws and these tangible things and not about attitudes and behavior which to me is where the root of all this lies,” said Glenn Sangou, who wrote and performed his own testament. “It’s in perception, it’s in misperception, it’s in how people really feel and when you heard brothers articulating about how they really, really feel it forces you to see a human being. “

That problem with perception affects police officers as well as black men, Sangou said.

“It doesn’t matter whether all police are bad," he said. "The problem is that there is a perception that all police are bad and all black men are dangerous.” 

"Hands Up" is not meant to blame or point fingers, McCrory said. The purpose of the production is to share perspectives and feelings in order to start a much-needed dialogue about the issues. 

Around this time last year, the National Black Theatre put together a similar reflective production about the death of Trayvon Martin. It’s not an anniversary that McCrory looks forward to.

“I do not want to have to do this again,” the director said. “We have to shift this paradigm. As beautiful as these pieces are, they shouldn’t have to be written.”

"Hands Up" has four dates — Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. as well as Sunday at 4 p.m. and Monday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20.