It’s Not Just Black History

Until I saw the look in his eyes, I wasn’t sure that what we were doing was worth while. What is so funny about three people on a stage stacking themselves on top of each other on a wooden block? Well, if you’re a middle schooler, everything. Why?  Because THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT A SLAVE SHIP IS, OR WHAT IT WAS LIKE BEING ON ONE. At first, while trying to depict a slave ship scene with minimal props, I thought I should change something. The audience is giggling at one of the most horrible things that mankind ever did. Should I stay in character and find some way of saying “actually, it’s not funny,” or just be professional and do the show we came to do?

slave-shipI went the professional route; we all worked even harder to tell the story of the Underground Railroad to a bunch of 7th and 8th graders. After a few performances of Oh Freedom, a brand new play by Peter Manos, I began to wonder if we were accomplishing what we set out to do: teach people about the history of racism and the effect it has on all of us through the powerful medium of theatrical storytelling. Was it worth it? Do they get it? Does anyone care about this part of – not just “black” history – all of our history? Then we went to Wartburg.

In a middle school gym, we once again worked our hardest to tell complex stories covering dozens of characters with only four people in only fifty minutes. Afterward, they asked questions … good questions. We had a beautiful dialogue, and at one point, their history teacher shouted from the stands, “This was wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing this!” He seemed overwhelmed with gratitude; we were trying to help him explain tough things to kids for the first time, a picture that one man in a classroom can’t always paint on his own. One of us promptly replied, “Thank you sir, for doing such an important job.”  The entire place erupted in applause for the history teacher. That’s when I saw the look in his eyes that changed everything.  From where I sat, it looked like tears.

That history teacher knew something I didn’t. He knew that the strange reactions that young people can sometimes have to harsh truths are the very reason we are there. BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW YET. They don’t know that ten of the first twelve presidents owned slaves, even the ones who spoke against slavery. They don’t know that nothing is accomplished by talk alone; we have to do something about the bondage around us. They don’t know that “Black History” is a huge and important part of our Nation’s history, full of not just darkness but beauty, courage, forgiveness, and redemption. They didn’t know, because we had not shown them yet. Now they begin to know, because their teachers work hard, and The WordPlayers do, too.

For about ten years, The WordPlayers have toured a show like this. We interact with folks who don’t get it yet, and folks who remember. So let us remember. Let us remember the folks who don’t know yet, and teach them. Let us remember the folks who teach them every day, and applaud those teachers. Let us remember “Black History” as something we all were a part of. Let us remember the challenges of the past, so that they can be stepping stones to a better future. The work is not done; there are more folks in some form of slavery today than ever in recorded history.

It was a wonderful tour, and we really did enjoy all our audiences, young and old. But I think I speak for the whole cast when I say that we are ready to get off the stage, and get out in the street. To shout “Abolition!” as we find ways to not just talk about bondage, but do something. I want to be steadfast and welcoming like John Rankin. Lena wants to be courageous against all odds like Harriet Tubman. Jeni wants to use her creativity to set others free like Harriet Beecher Stowe. Malik wants to be brave and get out where he can get people to freedom like Henry “Box” Brown. And you need to look up all of these historic figures, and find out what their story is, because it’s not just Black History, it’s OUR History.

Talk to me.

Ethan Norman
Artistic Associate, The WordPlayers