Theater for Change: A Boston Story

If you’re waging a campaign – for mayor of Boston, better schools, cleaner air, more funding for the arts – what do you need to win?

Ask any seasoned activist and you’ll get a laundry list of essentials: smart strategy, good organization, money, committed volunteers, savvy communications….

“A play?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, with actors?”

“Mmm, interesting, I don’t really think….”

Right. These days not too many people outside of the theater think about making theater to make social change. And frankly it didn’t occur to me in relation to David Walker.
Let me back up. I’m a playwright and also a bit of a history buff. Three years ago I participated in a seminar series on the history of black Boston. We were discussing the abolitionist movement, and David Walker’s name came up. I was embarrassed that I’d never heard of him.

It turns out I was far from alone. Walker (1797?-1830) is an unsung hero. He made a critical contribution to the anti-slavery struggle, but you won’t find him in standard history books. He spent his most influential years in Boston, yet his grave in a South Boston cemetery is unmarked. His only public commemoration is a small plaque on the side of a house on Joy Street in what was then the African-American enclave on Beacon Hill. To most Americans, David Walker – visionary, radical, an inspiration to later generations of black leaders and activists – is invisible.

Our little study group decided that had to change, and we launched The David Walker Memorial Project (DWMP).

Fast forward to this month. David Walker is being honored and celebrated – appropriately during this 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation – with a series of public events organized by the DWMP in Boston: a Remembrance March, a symposium, a reading/discussion of his liberationist pamphlet, “Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World”…

And a new play of mine, “Raising David Walker”, which runs October 24-27 at Hibernian Hall, in Roxbury.

Most of my plays can broadly be called “political” – an inexact term, to be sure – but this is the first time I’ve written a play that directly serves an activist campaign. It got me thinking about the relationship of theater and political activism, and I thought I’d share some of those musings in this blog (along with a shameless promo for my play.)
When we first began the DWMP, I had no plans to write a play about David Walker. Our focus was on how to make him better known and appreciated and to lay the groundwork for our long-term goal: to build a public memorial in his honor. We set up a website (www.davidwalkermmemorial.org), we revised and expanded the inaccurate Wikipedia entry on Walker, and we discussed plans for a curriculum for teachers and students.
Still, I knew that somewhere inside the David Walker story was a play itching to get out. Not a history play, not a biopic – Derek Walcott’s opera called simply “Walker” is focused on the man himself – but something that would connect Walker and his ideas with the contemporary struggle for racial justice. And then – eureka! – I found my starting point: the widespread belief in the black community back then that Walker, who officially died of TB, was in fact assassinated.

Even when I began developing the play, it wasn’t clear to me that it could have a role in the DWMP. For starters, there was the small matter of getting the thing produced. Luckily (doesn’t luck always play a part?), Dillon Bustin, the artistic director of Hibernian Hall, came to a staged reading of “Raising David Walker” at The Democracy Center in Cambridge, liked it, and offered to stage it at Hibernian Hall. And the timing came together, too: we were able to schedule the production to coincide with the other DWMP events this fall.

Although it may be distinct in being linked to a specific campaign, “Raising David Walker” is just one of a host of contemporary plays on social and political themes that have graced – and are gracing – Boston stages this fall. In a recent Boston Globe article, Don Aucoin highlighted some of them, including Quiara Alegria Hudes’s “Water by the Spoonful” at the Lyric Stage, Ginger Lazarus’s “Burning” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Robert Schnenkkan’s “All The Way” at the A.R.T. and Zeitgeist Stage’s revival of “The Normal Heart” at the Boston Center for the Arts.

There are also all kinds of cool theatrical uprisings happening beyond the confines of our theater buildings. By way of example, the True Colors troupe of The Theater Offensive, Reflect and Strengthen in Dorchester, and Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past – History, Organizing and Power) in Roxbury all provide opportunities for young people to create and perform material that speaks to the realities of their lives. In doing so, participants develop self-belief and a sense of their own personal and political power. Their work builds on a long and honorable tradition of theater being employed as a social justice education and organizing tool (e.g. El Teatro Campesino in the farmworkers’ movement led by Cesar Chavez in the 1970’s, and, nearer home, the evergreen Bread and Puppet Theater of Vermont.)

But if you mostly work in more conventional theater spaces, you can’t help but wonder – at least I can’t: What impact am I really having? Who am I reaching, who am I engaging (beyond my friends, family and loyal fans)? What does “relevance” mean anyway in the context of theater?

Related to this, of course, are some systemic challenges: the dominance of electronic media and the marginal status of non-commercial theater in our culture. Accessibility and affordability. Whose voices do we hear in the theater? Whose don’t we hear? And who gets to be in the audience? The folks most victimized by poverty, greed, cruelty, hypocrisy and other social scourges rarely see their lives and struggles represented on stage because they can’t afford a ticket. And then there’s the perennial numbers question. Even if a show is sold out – hallelujah! – comparatively few people will see it. It’s the nature of the beast. As the British playwright and activist David Hare once wrote: “In all theatre, there is some basic disproportion between the amount of effort which needs to go in, and the risk that so few people may take so little out.”

At least with “Raising David Walker”, I’ll be able to look to the success of the DWMP as a whole. If our website attracts more traffic, if information requests increase, if we can raise the money and build the memorial, it’s fair to assume (and I will) that the play, as part of raising Walker’s profile and generating support for the project, had something to do with it.
The social impact of any art form will always be a matter of debate. I think John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular theatre company 7:84, has it right: “…the theatre can never ’cause’ a social change. It can articulate pressure towards one, help people celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence… Above all, it can be the way people find their voice, their solidarity and their collective determination”.
________________________________________________________________
Oh, a teaser about “Raising David Walker”!… “The year is 1979. Serena Fox, a graduate student in forensic science at a Boston university, takes an elective course on the history of racism and is introduced to David Walker, an early nineteenth-century abolitionist. Captivated by Walker and his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, she begins to hear his voice in her head. One morning Serena enters her living room to a find a man dressed in period clothes sitting on the couch. He says he’s David Walker….” The incomparable Vincent Ernest Siders is directing, and we have a great tech team and a cracking cast – Diego Arciniegas, Shanae Burch, Ric Engermann, Kris Sidberry, and Jem Wilner. Tickets – $20, $10 for seniors and students – are available at www.hibernianhall.org. Hope to see you there!

**************************

Peter Snoad lives in Jamaica Plain. He’s Visiting Playwright at Hibernian Hall for
2013/14 – three more of his plays will be done there next year – and a recipient of playwriting fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. psnoad@yahoo.com; http://www.petersnoad.com

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About jhennrikus

Julie Hennrikus is the Executive Director of StageSource
This entry was posted in New Work, Playwright, Social Change, Up for Discussion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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