REVIEW: Reading Of DON’T CALL IT A RIOT Brings Important History To Life At Neptune Theatre

Published on August 16, 2017 by   ·   No Comments

Often for my Seattle reviews I don’t give my typical spoiler warning at the top since most of you Champagne Dreamers are firmly planted across the Midwest, and often the show that I’m attending has closed before the review even goes up.  This was a one night reading, but there will be a full production at Seattle’s 18th Avenue and Union Theatre in May of 2018, so for those who are in the Seattle area or who like to travel, I’ll warn you now: I’m going to tell some tales and discuss the plot in great detail.  Be warned, and I hope you choose to read on!

XOXO – Miss Jaye

Theatre isn’t just about entertainment.  Of course, good theatre does – and should – entertain, but people often underestimate how important the arts can be as part of movements for social justice.  Think of the soundtrack of protest that floated through the collective consciousness of the 60s and 70s, the revolutionary poetry of writers like Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsburg, all of the stunning and shocking photography from people embedded in war zones or on the front lines of protest rallies.  There are wonderful “protest plays” and theatrical works that express discontent with society, and these works hope to challenge not only the status quo but also people’s complacency with it.  Into this tradition, author Amontaine Aurore is contributing a powerful new work.

Riot 03

Riot 01A staged reading of her new play, Don’t Call It A Riot, was presented on August 10 at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle as part of their Nights at the Neptune series, featuring readings and scaled-down productions with a social justice theme – and free admission.  The play does a masterful job of connecting two struggles: the Black Panther Party (fighting for racial equality) and the WTO protests in 1999 (organized around a collection of primarily economic and environmental issues).  Not only does it evoke these movements in terms of their own meanings and implications for the communities they were borne of, it also creates connections between them as a shared search for more justice in the world, a message that is extremely necessary in our current moment.

Riot 02In the first act, set in 1970, Reed (Anjelica McMillan) and Sam (Russell Hawkins) are both active and committed members of the Party, and are expecting their first child.  Their house gets more noisy and complicated when Reed’s good friend Marti (Lillian Afful-Straton) moves in.  A member of the Party in name only, Marti is mostly indifferent to Reed’s impassioned speeches about the party and urges Reed to take better care of herself and not give too much to her social causes.  Their family is also being haunted by rumors and allegations that Sam, a charismatic leader whose star is on the rise among the Black Panthers, might actually be an FBI informant.  When Reed can no longer ignore the suggestion that Sam might be betraying the cause they have both dedicated themselves to, heart and soul, he is angered.  “I expect hate and mistrust and doubt out there.  But not from you, Reed.  Not in my own home.”  When Reed counters, asking what she should think when she’s presented with evidence that Sam is a traitor he says, “You’re not supposed to think, Reed.  You’re supposed to know.”  This is their last exchange – after Sam storms off, he is killed outside of his house, presumably as revenge for his rumored transgressions.

Riot 06Act two flashes forward to 1999 and 20-year-old Falala (Skylar Wilkerson) is preparing to attend the protests of the World Trade Organization; she is arguing with her boyfriend, Paris (Robert Lovett), who is concerned that she seems to be abandoning what he thought were their shared ideals of non-violent action.  “God does not care about a window at the downtown Starbucks,” she tells him when he suggests that violence and property damage might undermine their moral advantage.  “I’ve seen firsthand what putting things over people can do to a person.”

The name Falala means “born in abundance” and is the name Reed tells Marti in the first act that she wants to give to her unborn child if it’s a girl.  The stage directions, read by actress Jasmine Lamax, indicate that the second act takes place 29 years after the first, but Falala is only 20; already something is amiss.  When Falala goes to pick up the WTO protest speaker at the airport and it’s revealed to be Reed, who she speaks to as if a stranger, it’s clear that things did not work out as intended.

In fact, Falala is Marti’s daughter; Marti is now a successful Seattle politician with a conservative platform who is scandalized by her previous association with the Party.  The reunion of the two women is awkward and Marti drinks to try to provide some social lubricant to the situation, but she ends up revealing much more than she bargained for: she accidentally lets slip information that leads Reed to realize that it was Marti, and not Sam, who was working with the FBI and caused Sam’s murder.  Not only does she have to content with that betrayal, she also has to think about how she’s spent the last 30 years of her life.  “That much anger can burn you alive,” Reed says to Marti, and for Reed this is no mere metaphor: unable to cope with the grief of losing both her husband and child as well as her rage at Sam’s for his alleged betrayal, Reed developed a drug habit and has spent several stints in rehab, a fact that Marti brings up to Falala to try to discredit Falala’s obvious hero worship.  Now that she knows that she spent all of that time angry at Sam for no reason, playing right into the schemes of the FBI and J Edgar Hoover’s plots against the Panthers, there is new grief and new anger to contend with.

At the rally, Reed speaks and talks about the “power of the pen.”  This echoes Sam’s speech before a group of Party members that opens the show: “They have more guns than we do – they always will.  It is the power of our minds they fear.”  Reed echoes his sentiments, but she provides a caution: “Power without wisdom carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.”  This is a hard-won wisdom for her, having seen the movement she was so committed to fall victim to schemes and betrayals, forfeiting the trust and support that members were supposed to be offering to one another.

Gas Masks

But Reed only has a short time to nurse her newfound resentment of her friend: Falala is injured at the protests and is in a coma.  Reed rushes to the hospital to be by her friend’s side.  She’s not sure she’s able to forgive or forget at this moment, but the promise of the Party was support for members in times of need, and this she provides to Marti, who is reckoning with what seems to be a tragic stroke of karmic justice.  And in a way, Marti too is a victim: she was forced to help infiltrate the police by corrupt police who busted her for shoplifting and threatened to plant drugs on her and put her away for years.  “You’re fucking 20 years old and you’re making decisions that affect the rest of your life” – as well, it would seem, as the life of her daughter.

The two women reach an uneasy peace as they wait for news on Falala’s condition.

Riot“But you didn’t do anything wrong,” Marti tells her friend.

Reed counters: “Yeah.  I did.  I tried to change the world.”

And that’s a large part of the thought that goes into this piece: when we decide to fight for a social movement, what prices do we pay in our personal lives?  Aurore seems to suggest that some sort of balance needs to be struck between the opposing forces: Reed, who dedicated herself wholly to the cause, has lost her husband and child and suffered through decades of addiction and recovery, but Marti, who had no real investment in social change, has attained some level of social comfort but is morally bankrupt, and is able to sustain only shallow relationships with her family.  “Mommy.  Mommy.  Mommy!  I want to love you.  But some days you make it so hard.”  Much like Reed’s last interaction with Sam, Marti’s last exchange with Falala before the protest is also tense with distance and posturing.  The conclusion is that too much sacrifice can destroy you, but so can too little; success is found in giving part of yourself to social improvement while also attending to and preserving those personal connections that will sustain you in moments of struggle.

And not only is this play about these moments, these struggles, it is also a sort of love letter to Seattle’s history of progressive social action.  “Isn’t it strange how a geographical area can hold your feelings?” Reed asks Falala, almost rhetorically, as they drive from the airport to her fateful meeting with Marti.  She’s referencing a melancholy for the loss of her husband and child, but it also seems to represent the author’s feelings of love and admiration for those courageous activists who risk their personal lives for the greater good.  The evening featured a post-show discussion with the playwright, Norm Stamper (former Chief of the Seattle Police Department, and an advocate for police reform), and Joaquin Uy (an activist and independent journalist who was part of the WTO protests in 1999 as both a protestor and a correspondent).  They spoke about the history referenced in the play as well as their own activisms and how social justice work can both enrich and create challenges for an activist’s personal life.

potato faced assholesAfter the events in Charlottesville, VA (which are only a few days past as I’m writing this), and more resurgence of neo-Nazi organizations on the horizon, this show presents a history of activism that is plugged in and informs our current historical moment.  It is a play that speaks to any moment, as it shows the vulnerabilities of those who give too much to their communities and causes (and there will always be those who give to much), but it speaks especially pointedly to this moment.  It’s not perfect: the way in which Marti reveals that she was the real “snitch” is a bit threadbare, and she gives away far too much detail (a subtler hand would make the scene more effective), and Sam remains a bit flat (though this may be on purpose to help support Reed’s doubt of his innocence, it makes him less interesting), but overall the script is tightly plotted and weaves together these stories wonderfully.  The actors all gave fantastic performances and really brought their characters to life, even more than I typically expect from a staged reading.  The director, Marquicia Dominguez, should be applauded for helping to elicit such powerful performances from the actors.

Call it an important theatrical work that speaks to our cultural reality.  Call it a powerful play by a talented playwright that encourages conversation and dialogue.  Call it a piece of the beautiful and complex patchwork of “the art of protest.”

Just don’t call it a riot.  The truth, as always, is much more complicated than that.


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