When my iPhone pinged at around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Periscope was alerting me to tune in to Center Stage’s live broadcast of a discussion connected to their “My America Too” project. I logged on and watched as a group of diverse audience members discussed six new plays Center Stage had commissioned and released online that week, by accomplished playwrights like Neil LaBute and Lydia R. Diamond—the presentation format is a first for a local theater, to the best of my knowledge.
Starting Dec. 7, the theater’s YouTube channel was updated with six different plays over six days, works written in direct response to the recent police killings in cities across America. Each play took place around a “kitchen” table and filmed in the exact locations of six recent killings—guerilla-theater style, and scarily relevant for Baltimore. “The uniting element, the American ‘kitchen table,’ is a place where honest discussion could happen,” says Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage’s artistic director, through email.
The conversations around the tables range from police officers arguing away blame on the Staten Island street corner where Eric Garner was fatally choked, to our President in Charleston, South Carolina, grappling with his identity. Through these videos we see the conversations we’re all having at the sites where they all began. The playwrights take us down the last path Trayvon Martin ever walked and to the playground where Tamir Rice lost his life.
“When I arrived to the US in 2011, I went out to 50 writers and asked them to write me a monologue about America- entitled ‘My America.’ These plays taught me much about the country I had moved to,” reflects Kwei-Armah, a London transplant. “Around the beginning of [this year] I was sensing that the country was somehow changing. So I reached out to ten writers and asked them to repeat the exercise. The issues around black lives matter in a loose way emerged. ”
In the fourth installment, “Mr. Chen,” we meet a Cambodian restaurant owner in Baltimore, whose shop was raided during the riots, and his jaded adult son. It all unfolds in front of the now boarded-up CVS pharmacy in West Baltimore. We see how heartbroken the shop owner is by the fact that the community, whom he trusted only days before, would turn on him like that. Poses the question of whether or not Baltimore turned on itself—and the overarching question of whether or not these killings can be seen as America turning on itself.
“Whatever happens, whatever result emerges, what is evident to me, is that it’s not just the officer that is on trial, but America’s relationship to the idea of equality and justice for all,” Kwei-Armah says, in regards to the Porter trial.
“My America Too” is part of Kwei-Armah’s efforts to make theater accessible and free for all in this modern era. It’s funny, Center Stage advertised the live events (the theater presented live performances of the plays and discussions afterwards Saturday and Sunday) as limited seating venues, but it didn’t matter with the tools of the internet. We all get to watch these dramas unfold and partake in the discussion. Just like the nation watched and commented on these killings.
With that in mind, the fact that these deaths were made so public and high-profile because of media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the digital roots of this project seem necessary, or at the very least appropriate. “Theatre demands metaphor. Film has the luxury of being literal,” Kwei-Armah explains.
We watched these young men die online. It’s only fitting that we should watch them resurrected in this manner, too. Instead of trending with images of black bodies being shot down, Center Stage uplifts and honors those we’ve lost through hatred and cruelty.