Watts Residents Explore #BlackLivesMatter And Gun Violence In 'Gunshot Medley'
A group of concerned artists has banded together to help Watts residents tackle hard conversations. The hope: that live theater can spark conversation and ways to explore issues like gun violence, racism, and officer-involved shootings.
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to explore these subjects, local L.A. troupe Rogue Machine Theatre hopes that storytelling on a stage can ease some of the fear and frustration. Their new play is Gunshot Medley: Part 1.
Playwright Dionna Michelle Daniel answered a call to pen a script about race relations and firearms. She was in her North Carolina hometown of Winstom-Salem, walking in a local cemetery with her mentor around the time of the Charleston church shooting.
"I was angry, I was hurt," Daniel recalled. "We were walking and I saw that someone had placed little Confederate flags on the graves of Confederate soldiers. I was flustered. My mentor said, 'Have you seen the slave graves?'"
She hadn't, even though she'd been to that cemetery many times.
"We literally hopped over some bushes and they were hidden from the rest of the cemetery. And I found these three stones: Betty, Alvis, and George," Daniel said.
Daniel said that her anger about gun violence in the black community, coupled with the national debate over confederate flags and statues, fueled her fire to write the stories of those three forgotten slaves. She described it as a #BlackLivesMatter story from slavery to now.
She set the story back in that North Carolina graveyard where she came across those slave gravestones. On stage, we get to hear about the fate of Betty, Alvis, and George.
We pop in on their lives — or afterlives — multiple times. But it seems they're living the same scene over and over again, just during different periods of history.
The music changes, but their circumstances never do. The trio can never seem to escape the dangers of being killed by a gun — no matter the entry point on America's timeline.
In South L.A., most people already know that the Watts Labor Community Action Center is the place to find classes, workshops, even a skate park. But few people know it has a theater space tucked away in a corner of the campus, called 'The Center' — and Collaborative Artists Bloc wants people to know it's a thing.
They're a collective of actors, writers,and designers, including many from the Rogue Machine company. They want to mount new work that explores social justice issues and cultural identity in underserved communities. Working together, the two groups set up shop in Watts this month to present the new production.
For audience member Denise Perkins, the play was personal, because she'd just heard tragic news.
"It scared me," Perkins as she walked out of the theater with her daughter, husband and granddaughter. "I just lost a nephew tonight. Tonight. My sister's son. I don't know if it was a drive-by. But he was shot. Gunned down. I've got to see her first to see what's going on. Life's too short for that. But I had to come on here, because the message of the show is unconditional love."
The artists are quick to point out that there's already a long, rich history of visual art in South L.A., but they want to boost access to the performing arts.
"In this point and time in history, it is unfortunate, but I think we need to be louder specifically as artists," show director Desean Terry said. "I hope that other artists listen to the call and make their voices heard during this time."
Terry himself put out a call to artists on his Facebook page. That was the pseudo-want ad that playwright Daniel answered.
The theater artists say they know their story can't solve the issue of gun violence here in South L.A. — or anywhere in the country, for that matter. But the goal, said Watts resident and show producer Bruce Lemon, is to make sure people know that art is another tool to help craft some possible solutions to a seemingly impossible problem.
"We need to do more of these so that the kids around the corner can come in here and see themselves represented on stage and go, 'Oh, maybe I can do that too!" Lemon said. "But nobody is gonna know that unless they have the experience."
The show's producers say they'll keep the cost of a ticket as pay-what-you-can, so that nobody is excluded.
Rogue Machine's Gunshot Medley: Part 1 plays through this weekend at the Watts Labor Community Action Center in South L.A.
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