Inspired by the "Black Lives Matter" movement, a new play set to debut Thursday at UC Irvine fearlessly tackles racism and gives voice to African-American youth about their experience of being black in America.
Directed by Amanda Novoa and produced by Ross Jackson, Our Life: The Black Youth Stories Project is a performance piece meant to get people talking. The motivation to produce the play itself began with a hotly debated killing. When a grand jury failed to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last November in the fatal on-duty police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, Jackson felt something had to be done.
Living at Portland, Oregon at the time, Jackson had a return car trip to Orange County set for the next morning, but couldn't sleep. "Instead of resting that night to drive back the next day, I was watching the livestreams of the protests," he says. The news headlines got Jackson curious about what black youth felt about everything around them.
Our Life: The Black Youth Stories Project started with nationwide story circles in Arkansas, Portland, New York, Miami, and New Orleans. Jackson spoke with youth locally in Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Westminster, and Newport Beach. "We had a lot of students that told us that these were questions they had never been asked before," he recalls of the experience. Youth were eager to share their stories about places and times they felt excluded or unwelcome. Jackson, born in New Orleans, could definitely relate to what they had to say.
"The students who are our future are ready to talk about this," Jackson adds. Though the story circles took place in cities across the states, there was a commonality in their voices. "People are experiencing the same thing. Racism doesn't just happen when the television tells us it happens," he says.
Actors Taylor Fagins, Maribel Martinez, and Christopher L.A. Bearden recreate the wealth of stories over a period of an hour in the project. Spoken word pieces, monologues and scenes frame the theatrical production. Fifteen vignettes deal with everything from violence against black women's bodies, "purse clutching" racism and police brutality. There's lighthearted moments, too.
But the aim is not to appeal to the already converted. An open dialogue on issues of racism follows every production. For those involved in Our Life: The Black Youth Stories Project, the work isn't done by abolishing racism; those who harbor hatred against people simply for their skin color need to hear from those that don't.
"We can educate and give people the information that they need," says Jackson, "so that conversations can start elsewhere."
Our Life: Black Youth Stories stages at UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts
Contemporary Arts Center – xMPL(CAC 1101 – Building #721), Thurs., Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Free. All Ages.
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2