Modern Lynchings, Vintage Plays

Powerful women making powerful work.

Some women-authored lynching plays. Photo Credit: Serge Limontas-Salisbury II.

Powerful women making powerful work.

Some women-authored lynching plays. Photo Credit: Serge Limontas-Salisbury II.

Charged (adjective): filled with excitement, tension, or emotion.

Charged (adjective): accused of something, especially an offense under law.

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Charged (adjective): entrusted with a task as a duty or responsibility.

All representations are charged representations.

Every time we create, replicate or reproduce something, we make a statement. We charge that representation with everything we are and everything we are not. And while we aren’t (and shouldn’t be) limited to art that is a reflection of ourselves, all art that we create and consume exists in relationship to who we are. The moment you frame a photograph, compose a line, choose a color or find a medium, you begin to represent something about who you are and the world you live in.

I am currently struggling with the world I live in.

My name is Courtney Harge, and I am a black woman who also happens to be a theater producer, director and arts administrator. I have been studying and working in theater since I was 12 years old. I founded my own company, Colloquy Collective, in 2011. My work centers on examining the intersections of race, identity and theater through reviving pre-existing work. Simply, I ask this question: what can we learn about our present from works created in the past?

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For the last six months, I have been directing women-authored lynching plays. In Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens define these works as “[plays] in which the threat or occurrence of a lynching, past or present, has major impact on the dramatic action.” It has been disheartening to realize that these plays, all written before 1930, also accurately depict life in our current reality. As Perkins and Stephens go on to state:

…lynching plays are both a dramatic record of racial history in the United States and a continuously evolving dramatic form that preserves the knowledge of this particular form of racial violence and the memory of its victims.

The cast of Rachel: Lauren Lattimore, Santoya Fields, Temesgen Tocruray, Bonita Jackson and Damone Williams. Photo by Stefano Giovannini.

The cast of Rachel: Lauren Lattimore, Santoya Fields, Temesgen Tocruray, Bonita Jackson and Damone Williams. Photo by Stefano Giovannini.

In other words, Black life is a life in which the threat or occurrence of a lynching — or stop-and-frisk, or the school-to-prison pipeline, or any number of systems built on a racist infrastructure, past or present — has a major impact on your everyday actions.

For the last six months, I’ve read the words of Black women affirming the humanity of our people written over the greater part of the last 100 years and I have a visceral understanding of that impulse. These women used these plays to profess #BlackLivesMatter in the face of unimaginable horror. They used these representations to accuse the broader population of neglect and entrusted these characters with their legacy. These authors charged these representations with saving their people and I get to experience firsthand that it didn’t work.

Every name we say reaffirms that failure. Much like the lynching play as dramatic form, lynching (the action) is continuously evolving. Lynching is 688 police-involved shootings since Jan. 1, 2015. Lynching is five women found dead in a jail somewhere in the U.S. during the month of July. Lynching is what happened to Trayvon Martin. What happened to Tamir Rice. To Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Walter Scott. Akai Gurley. Sandra Bland. Sam Dubose.

Juvenile African-American convicts working in the fields in a chain gang, photo taken c. 1903

Some things aren’t as far away as we’d like to think they are. Via /

For the last six months, I have explored the difference between the America in which these women playwrights lived, and the one in which I presently reside. The difference is miniscule and I am no longer able to accept arguments to the contrary. There is nothing like experiencing a play from 1916 and hearing characters speak your 2015 pain.

As I said at the beginning, all art that we create and consume exists in relationship to who and what we are. And what I am is tired of a prevailing narrative which tries to silence marginalized people with fictionalized notions of “impartiality” and “objectivity.” A narrative that tries to minimize my anger as stereotype while ignoring its impetus. A narrative that insists if marginalized people behaved better we would survive. Angelina Weld Grimké‘s 1916 play Rachel was written expressly to support this narrative.

This is from Koritha Mitchell’s critical study Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930:

[Rachel] is a full-length, sentimental play whose emotional appeal largely hinges on the similarity between whites and blacks. In fact, Grimké later explained that she had written the play to convince whites, especially white women, that lynching was wrong, as illustrated by the fact that even upstanding black citizens were vulnerable to it.

In presenting a family, named Loving, that is above reproach, Grimké was saying “don’t kill us because we’re just like you.” We are worth saving because we know how to behave. If you view us, impartially and objectively, as people as opposed to black people, you will see that lynching is wrong. That is a problem for me, mostly because it did not work. Therefore:

For the last six months, I’ve read the work of many women from long ago who did an excellent job of telling the stories of people who lived with lynching. They presented the best of humanity arising out of the worst of circumstances. I am thankful for them. And I have been charged to go a step beyond by using their works as a mirror with which to judge our progress, or lack thereof. I am here to stop our collective back-patting around race and art and ourselves because those works prove that we have not overcome. I am here to continue the difficult conversations about the ways in which our artistic representations have real-world consequences.

I invite you to join me in this conversation. Throughout the month of August, a full production of Rachel, directed by me, is running at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, New York. Each performance will feature a talkback with the cast and crew, which will be an opportunity for the audience to offer its thoughts and reactions. Tickets are free, and can be reserved here.

All representations are charged representations. Let’s see what exactly they’ve been charged with.

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