Exploring Race Through Performance

Two performance projects have been spurring big discussions about race and identity in Vermont in recent weeks. The Vermont Stage production of The Mountaintop depicts the imagined last night of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. And Sandglass Theater recently brought the collaborative Race Peace project storytelling and performance project to Brattleboro.

We discuss the role theater and performance can play in exploring big social issues, and the unique challenges and opportunities of talking about race in a relatively homogenous state. We're joined by Cristina Alicea of Vermont Stage and Eric Bass of Sandglass Theater. We also hear from Jolie Garrett, who plays Dr. King in The Mountaintop, and Carlton Turner, who helped develop Race Peace.

Jolie Garrett on portraying Dr. Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop

Jolie Garrett, the actor who plays Dr. Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop, says that he was born on the same day King was laid to rest, so he thinks he may have been meant to play this role. “I consider it an honor and I listened to many of his speeches when I was preparing for this role,” says Garrett. “[I listened to] his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech to get his cadence, his rhythm. And then after that, of course, you have to add the action and the passion. The emotion comes later in the rehearsal process.” The actor says that it’s been very moving to play King and that sometimes he gets overwhelmed with emotion. “[Director Christina Alicea] would have to say, ‘OK, well now, that’s good. But we’re going to have to pull it back.’ We can see people during these performances, and I can see the tears, and I can see people crying because it’s very emotional and it has a profound effect on people, even 40 years later.”

"We're still fighting this civil rights battle in 2015. And many of the things that Dr. King was preaching, the things he was fighting for, we're still fighting today." - Jolie Garrett, actor who plays Dr. Martin Luther King in "The Mountaintop"

“We’re still fighting this civil rights battle in 2015,” says Garret. “And many of the things that Dr. King was preaching, the things he was fighting for, we’re still fighting today. As we see these riots on our streets in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, and we say to ourselves, ‘Is this the ’60s or 2015?’ So we must continue to pass that baton and fight discrimination and inequality and segregation.” The actor says that’s why plays like The Mountaintop are so important, now more than ever, because it helps contribute to that fight.

"From younger people, particularly Millennials, I hear that racism doesn't exist here, that it exists somewhere else, down South maybe. But of course racism exists here." - Jolie Garrett

After each performance, the actors have conversations with the audience and Garret says many of the same themes come up. “What I’ve been hearing, especially in a town like Burlington, is the idea that this town is colorblind,” he says. “From younger people, particularly Millennials, I hear that racism doesn’t exist here, that it exists somewhere else, down South maybe. But of course racism exists here. It just tends to be more understated sometimes, and because this state and city tends to be predominantly Caucasian, sometimes Caucasian people in the talk-backs will say that it’s our responsibility to recognize that there is still racism and we need to realize that and talk about it.” Garret says that there are ways to talk about racism intelligently and peacefully, but it seems like people get upset whenever the issue comes up. “So we have to learn how to talk about this thing peaceably and say, ‘Now, how we can rid ourselves of this problem? Is it possible?’ I think it is,” he says.

But is it really possible? “The hard thing is getting everybody on the same page,” says Garret. “Because the problem is, there are those people who believe racism doesn’t exist anymore.”

Cristina Alicea, of Vermont Stage, adds that racism isn’t always brought up in white households. “I think it isn’t discussed unless it’s something that they personally face,” she says, “such as a circumstance on the street or an occasion that brings the conversation up. But it isn’t something that people sit around the dinner table and bring up to say, ‘I want to have a discussion about race.’”

"A lot of times we aren't listening to each other, and that's something we have to start doing more of." - Jolie Garrett

Garrett agrees. “Whereas in a black family, you would have that conversation because black parents have to tell their teenage son or daughter how to behave around the police. What to say, what to do, what not to do, perhaps where to go, where not to go. We have these conversations. Racism isn’t racism until it happens to you,” he says. He asks how often white people in Burlington, Vermont are really confronted with racism. “It’s just being aware that it is still here, and listening.” Garret thinks that people are so used to being emotional and getting angry, that we live in a society that’s very instant. “A lot of times we aren’t listening to each other, and that’s something we have to start doing more of,” he says.

Carlton Turner On The Race Peace project

Race Peace was created by a group of theater artists in Louisiana and Mississippi. Carlton Turner, who helped develop the project, says that it was created to foster a discussion about race, “to stimulate dialogue on race and racism, in some ways to debunk some of the myths around racism, and accentuate the complexities of racism as a structural entity that is created by man.” Turner says, “We basically create space for dialogues about race from a personal narrative.” Turner says that there is a lot of race training that happens around the country, but that Race Peace gives people an opportunity to share their own personal narrative. “Which we think is really influential in shaping how people come into their own view about race and how it impacts their lives,” he says.

“I think any time that you’re working with young people, you’re dealing with people who are beginning to form and understand what identity and race and ethnicity and all of those things mean to them. So there’s a lot more flexibility in that conversation, and more questions." - Carlton Turner, Race Peace

Race Peace has been doing a lot of work in the Brattleboro area, with both students and police, and Turner thinks that there are a lot of universal aspects to the conversation. “I think any time that you’re working with young people, you’re dealing with people who are beginning to form and understand what identity and race and ethnicity and all of those things mean to them. So there’s a lot more flexibility in that conversation, and more questions,” he says. Turner adds that when dealing with adults, they have deep and more entrenched stories they are carrying with them that, Turner says, inform how they think about themselves and how they perceive others. “That doesn’t seem to shift from community to community. We work on a basis of honoring the personal narrative that each individual brings to the space. That means there’s always a lot of collective wisdom that is gauged from engaging in a conversation and not necessarily sprouting statistics or analysis that comes from the outside,” he says.

Cristina Alicea on race conversations after The Mountaintop

"That has always been interesting, getting to that place in the conversation, because there is a bit of a myth that [racism] isn't an issue here, or rather that it's easier to talk about it from an outsider perspective, that it's happening to other people and not us." - Cristina Alicea, producing artistic director of Vermont Stage

Cristina Alicea, producing artistic director of Vermont Stage, the company that is putting on The Mountaintop, has been helping shape conversations between the cast and audience after the performances. “We start with what we all share, which is the experience of the play,” she says. She says they try to bring the conversation back home, asking how race impacts people in Vermont. “That has always been interesting, getting to that place in the conversation, because there is a bit of a myth that it isn’t an issue here, or rather that it’s easier to talk about it from an outsider perspective, that it’s happening to other people and not us,” she says.

One Listener’s Experience

During this discussion on Vermont Edition, a woman named Melissa called from Burlington to express how a 2009 Vermont Stage production had moved her to action. The play was, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given To Me By a Young Lady From Rwanda. “It was about a Rwandan refugee girl,” Melissa explained. “The play moved me so much and made a deep impression, and as a result I went and signed up with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement program. I’ve been tutoring a Somali refugee family in Winooski, and that’s actually where I’m going right now. I’ve been tutoring them for more than five years and I have a very close relationship with them and they’ve enriched my life so much. I thought it was a nice example of how theater could provoke somebody into action.”