“I want this conversation to happen. This, right here.”
That’s what flew out of Diana Daniels’s mouth when asked what she hoped would happen as a result of creating an original play about Eric Garner to be performed in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal this summer.
Daniels, a Staten Island resident and retired lab technologist, was sitting in a planning meeting for the Sounds of Port Richmond, a community-based theater partnership formed in 2013 by three parties: residents of the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island, Wagner College, and a national higher education network — Imagining America — that focuses on the vital and frequently overlooked contributions the arts and humanities play in democratic life.
The “this” that Daniels so emphatically desires is a “real” conversation about race and class in America, one that she feels is happening among the mixed-race, mixed-class members of the SoPR leadership team but not on the larger national landscape — and certainly not on Staten Island, where the divisions of race and class are notoriously distinct.
Facilitating the meeting is Kevin Bott, associate director of Syracuse University-based Imagining America and a scholar and practitioner of grassroots and political theater. He agrees with Daniels.
“I only say this piece is ‘about’ Eric Garner,” Bott said, making air quotes with his fingers, “because what it’s really about to me is race, class, power, privilege and everything else the deaths of these black men and boys are forcing us to confront. We need to hear each other’s stories. That’s how we’ll get beyond this. Not by shouting each other down. Not with facts and figures. Stories. That’s what will let us into each others’ lives and help us develop empathy for the people we tell ourselves aren’t like us.”
Bott helped to form SoPR in 2013 when, as part of a routine campus visit to Wagner, one of IA’s 100-plus member institutions, he was invited by the college’s Center for Leadership and Community Engagement to help them think about infusing the arts into the Port Richmond Partnership, a multi-agency coalition founded in 2008 and intended, in part, to connect Wagner’s human, financial and intellectual resources to the grassroots resources already present within the struggling Port Richmond neighborhood on Staten Island’s North Shore.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014, Bott led 2-week intensives for Port Richmond residents and Wagner College students and staff to explore issues of common concern. The first year’s process culminated in an interactive, bilingual performance about race relations between the local Mexican and African-American communities. It was performed to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd in the basement of a local church. (To see a video, go to the bottom of this page.) The second year’s intensive, which attracted over 50 local teen and adult participants, led to a more abstract piece: a rhythmic, kinetic, spoken-word collage that attempted to define Port Richmond in ways more nuanced than the nightly news’ focus on violence, poverty and crime.
Plans for 2015 were beginning to take shape in December of last year when news broke of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officers involved in Garner’s death. It changed everything for the group.
“We were angry and hurt, but we also felt like we were in a position to tell our own story,” said Charnae Alexander, an aspiring actress and founding member of SoPR. “We had been together for over 2 years and we just felt that, instead of having others say what was going on or what this meant, we could say it and be a voice for our own community.”
“I immediately thought of ‘The Laramie Project,’ ” said Bott of the interview-based play and subsequent HBO movie created by NYC’s Tectonic Theater Company from interviews of residents of Laramie, Wyoming following the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. “But instead of an outside group coming in to tell the story, local people would tell their own story — which is really what grassroots theater is all about.”
After watching the movie together and taking a weekend interviewing course designed for them by Wagner sociology professor Bernadette Ludwig, the leadership team began to interview its neighbors and other Staten Island residents about Garner and about all of the themes his death surfaces. With new local talent discovered through a week of auditions held in various locations around Staten Island’s North Shore this past May, SoPR will use the interview transcripts as well as whatever emerges during this summer’s 2-week intensive to create its piece, tentatively entitled, “Every Time You See Me” — the first words Garner is heard saying on the infamous video of his ill-fated interaction with the police. The workshops will culminate in three performances inside the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on July 17, the first anniversary of Garner’s death.
Daniels, who said she always loved theater but had never done it before, now sees art’s larger potential.
“This isn’t just about Eric Garner, and it’s not about bashing the police. It’s about a lot more than that,” she said. “We have a larger vision: to create a script and a workshop model and a curriculum that can be used by churches and schools and community centers to help people get into these issues. Really get into them. And it’s going to come from us — from regular folks on Staten Island. That’s the gift we’re going to make out of this tragedy, and that’s beautiful to me.”
Watch this video about the Sounds of Port Richmond’s first summer project, in 2013:
And for more information online:
- Wagner College Center for Leadership & Community Engagement
- Port Richmond Partnership
- Imagining America
- Imagining America’s Associate Director Kevin Bott musing on “Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and the IA Summer Institute” (May 15, 2015)