Saturday, January 29, 2011

Last Saturday I attended a performance down at the Roxbury Center for the Arts called "Screaming Bloody Murder." An attempt by local theatre folks (chief among them directors Kaili Y. Turner and Vincent Ernest Siders) to engage with the violence that has been scarring their community, the evening included four plays by African-American writers along with dance performances and a talkback.

In this kind of case - a non-Equity production by a community, for a community - I don't think my usual modes of critical writing really apply. Indeed, I admit even my attendance at this kind of event was unusual - it had been sparked by an earlier post here at the Hub Review, in which I bemoaned the fact that, though our theatres are supposedly utterly committed to diversity programming, we never hear much on their stages about the struggles of people of color right here in Boston. "Screaming Bloody Murder" both complicated this critique and, I'm afraid, validated it to a large degree - for there were at least two playwrights on tap here who deserve more attention (and probably a commission) from our larger theatres, and one dance artist who belongs on stages across the city, and maybe even across the country.

But first, back to the type of evening that "Screaming Bloody Murder" hoped to be. In the talkback that followed the performance, it was obvious that pretty much only the white folks in attendance (such as myself and erstwhile blogger Art Hennessey, who's even whiter than I am) did not have a friend or family member who had been injured or killed in street violence. All the people of color in the crowd were survivors, at least at one remove, of such attacks - even one of the performers, Vincent Siders, had developed his monologue from the experience of being shot and left to die on the streets of Washington D.C.

This kind of open wound in an audience puts a special onus on a performance - one that I'm happy to say "Screaming Bloody Murder" mostly met, but not entirely. Oddly enough, the talkback may be the toughest part of this kind of assignment, and here I'm afraid the conversation spun out of control a bit, probably because it takes a very experienced leader (experienced with both the community and the program in question) to guide and shape a discussion in which emotions inevitably run very high.

Of the one-act plays on offer, clearly the strongest was the punchy "To Hell with this Village," by S. Travis Taylor - which also boasted the most polished cast (among them local stars Akiba Abaka and Siders, who also directed). The script masterfully balanced bracing comedy with shocking violence in its exploration of a young gay man's rejection by his family - and local development programs take note, it almost cries out for expansion into a larger work. Meanwhile Frank A. Shefton's "Wounds," though less dazzlingly crafted, still gripped with its Tarantino-esque tale of young thugs hoping to extract a bullet from a fallen comrade in a dentist's chair - and featured a confidently affecting turn from young actor Joan Mejia.

The only one-act I had concerns about was "Hollering Murder," by the playwright Mwalim, which, like "To Hell with this Village," dealt with domestic violence within the community. Here, however, the script followed a female partner in a troubled couple perpetrating violence against her man - which of course is a valid choice artistically, but doesn't map well to the statistics we have on the problem. What's more, the dramatic action hinted the woman in question might have been egging on her partner to an assault - an excuse heard more than once by perpetrators of violence against women! If the play is to remain in the "Screaming Bloody Murder" program - and there's an argument that it should - it will require, I think, clear framing by the talkback coordinator.

On the lighter side, Vincent Ernest Siders offered a quite funny take on his own shooting. Yes, this was the lighter side of the dramatic program - although actually, I wished Siders, always a clever and canny performer, would mine more pathos and complexity from his predicament than he has so far. Rounding things off was a charming display of coordinated dance and movement by Swagga Inc. and especially a riveting tap performance by Sean C. Fielder, artistic director of the Boston Tap Company, and his able student, Brianne Cannady. The serenely poised Mr. Fielder is something of a wonder; it may not be too much to call him Boston's answer to Savion Glover. Mr. Fielder is open enough to admit he has been a convicted felon, and also talented and generous enough to convince you that any kind of history, no matter how troubled, can become a thing of the past. Which is basically the aim of worthy programs like "Screaming Bloody Murder." So I'll simply close with a graceful solo by Mr. Fielder, from the 2010 Beantown Tap Fest.


  1. A good read and write-up, Thomas! Thanks for coming and it was nice to meet you. You mention of statistics seems to miss one point: How many men, who are the victims of domestic violence (mental, physical, etc.) actually speak up or speak out? How many men speak out when they are the victims of sexual assault?

    I set out to write a play that addresses a silent reality in that many have experienced and suffered in silence. My question to you is: Do you want plays that address the 'realities' of the Black experience or plays that address your expectations of Black realities? Either way, kudos on an otherwise insightful review.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mwalim. To your question - I don't know how many men are the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault (but of course I'm sure the number of actual cases is higher than the number reported). And you certainly have the perfect right to pen any play you want, about any subject you choose.

    But your play was framed by a program with a strong sociological component, and in this performance it had to be read within that frame. The other plays in the program addressed other forms of violence - gang violence, violence against gays - in a manner which seemed immediately readable. Your message was more complex, and, as you say yourself, was meant to address "a silent reality."

    The trouble is that this "silent reality" is also often the excuse given by perpetrators of the OTHER reality - that is, domestic violence against women. I'm not saying the reality you describe doesn't exist; I'm saying that treating it artistically in a program such as this puts a special onus on the playwright to differentiate his message from that other message, to not allow his script to be "used" by others in a way he did not intend.

    I confess that I worried your play wasn't clear in that regard. I wasn't alone in that impression, btw; I overheard one or two people around me wondering "What exactly is he trying to say?" Of course it's up to you as the playwright to address those concerns or not; but if you don't, as I mentioned, I think the leader of the talkback should be prepared to clarify your intents.