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

Published on August 17, 2017 by   ·   No Comments

Since this script is heading to a full production in May 2018 at the 18th Avenue and Union Theatre in Seattle, I’m publishing a much less spoiler-laden version of my original review for those who might want to have a little sample of this work without consuming the whole entrée.  I might even incorporate this into the section for future productions so people can choose whether they want to whole story or just a few details to whet their appetites!  I’m calling it “Unspoiled,” and if you like this format, let me know in the comments!  There will still be some plot details and connections, but will include less detail and fewer reveals.  Enjoy!

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:

Reed: We make sacrifices.
Marti: For what?
Reed: For the cause!
Marti: Oh, right.  The cause.

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.”  These are some of the last words in the first Act one, and Reed must contend with the repercussions of those words for the next several decades.

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.  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.  Falala seems to be the embodiment of the sort of socially aware daughter Reed imagined in the first act.

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 secrets that profoundly change Reed’s understanding of their shared history.  Reed not only has to come to terms with what she’s learned about her friendship, but with how she’s spent the last almost 30 years of her life.  “That much anger can burn you alive,” Reed says to Marti, and for Reed this is no mere metaphor: much of her adult life has been defined by her disappointment that the dreams and aspirations of the Black Panthers went unrealized.  Reed may have regrets about the past, but seeing a bright, impassioned young woman like Falala fighting for social and economic justice re-energizes her .

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

The speech is powerful, and it helps Reed begin the process of making sense of her complicated relationships and gives her the opportunity to reflect on how much she gained and how much she lost when she dedicated so much of her time and personal life to the work of the activist.

RiotAnd 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 raises this important question, but doesn’t give easy answers, instead allowing the audience to ponder it as the lights dim and the production ends.

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 unexpected reunion with Marti.  She’s referencing her own past and her experiences with the Party, 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: there are pieces of the plotting that feel a little too familiar and Sam remains a bit flat (though this may be on purpose to support parts of the plot, 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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