Theatre artists gather in vigil to honor black lives lost to police violence

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published June 5, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

On Monday, June 8, Galvanize DC and Actors Arena will host “Making Space To Breathe/Gathering To Grieve” outside Arena Stage at 7 p.m.  The artist-driven vigil is being held to create a safe space to acknowledge what everyone is going through and to honor the lives of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others taken by police brutality.

Local artists and prominent DC theatre community members will speak. The current list of presenters (subject to change) includes Jade Jones, Temídayo Amay, Psalmayene 24, Felicia Curry, KenYatta Rogers, Kasai Rogers, Jefferson A. Russell, Ines Nassar and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. The team has planned an invocation, and appropriate songs and spoken word recitations.

The water facing Molly’s Study will be the front of the event. The organizers plan to maintain proper social distancing and encourage all attending to wear masks. There will be a plot laid out with “X”s marking places six feet apart to stand. The crowd will, if needed, wrap around the sides of Arena as well.

We spoke with two theatre artists and Galvanize DC organizers: Jefferson A. Russell (he/him/his) and J. J. Johnson (he/him/his).

Russell is confident that there will be enough space to safely accommodate a decent enough crowd. For those who cannot attend in person, the vigil will be streamed through Facebook Live and Instagram.

Russell and Johnson want everyone to come to, or stream, the vigil: theatre folks and non-theatre folks, black folks and white and non-black POC allies alike.

“We are gathering in an effort to make people know they’re not alone, to acknowledge that we are in this together, that we are seen and we are heard,” Russell said. “It’s to be able to acknowledge that, yes, we are all feeling this. It’s a safe forum to put these feelings and speak those truths. We live it, so there it is.”

Johnson agreed, saying that when incidents occur, it can sometimes feel very lonely. “It’s nice to reinforce community, to reinforce that we’re not alone and that there are methods to deal with this,” he said.

Russell has a uniquely personal perspective on the behaviors of the police.

“I used to be a Baltimore police officer, and I’m not ashamed of it, but I don’t live in that place. I’ve always been the person I am, even though that was over 20 years ago. But at the same time the reasons why I became a police officer are completely counter to the sh*t that we see, pardon my language, but the things that we see especially in the past few days.” Regarding the police presence at some of the protests:  “They’re aggressive. It’s counter to the ideals of law enforcement. They come in and it is not a thing of the objective being to de-escalate a situation. They, generally speaking, bring the energy to escalate the situation. And it’s like a personal thing that these police officers have, it’s a shallow sort of ego thing. They can’t be wrong.”

“It takes everyone to do the work, you know,” Russell said, “I would think and I would hope that it’s not just the DC theatre community, but the country and the world. It’s not just about, ‘Oh, they just want to be heard, so let’s let them be heard.’ No. It’s never been about that. We recognize we gotta take one step at a time, but, good God, man, what else does it take? Folks don’t like us protesting in any kind of way; there’s an issue with every which way a protest is made regarding equity and black lives. And it’s a thing where white people are uncomfortable with that, and I’m okay with that, because we have to be okay, because that’s the only way for something true, something real…to change.”

Russell and Johnson spearheaded the efforts. Jjana Valentiner, a co-organizer, worked with Arena Stage to get the outdoor space. All three are members of the steering committee for Actors Arena, an organization that previously collaborated with Galvanize DC on mental health workshops for black people at Arena Stage, including “Conscientious Theatre Training”centered around dismantling racism led by Nicole Brewer.

“We had talked about something for Galvanize to step forward and do, centered around black mental health,” Russell said. “Little did we know.”

Social media is being used to spread the word about the vigil, as well as email outreach and connecting with their built-in communities. Johnson said that he hopes black folks will find their community and find ways to engage with like minds online.

“When I was 20-something, I was just getting introduced to the Internet and social media wasn’t a thing, so we weren’t so connected back then,” Johnson said. “When you were alone, you were really, really alone. And so now you have the option of connecting with like minds and nurturing yourself almost instantly, which is a great privilege…that’s different for every demographic and group of people.”

Galvanize DC was established in 2005. Johnson and Russell’s previously worked with #BlackLivesMatter efforts include working with the group to create a video and collage to honor Trayvon Martin and town forums at Forum Theatre and the Silver Spring Black Box. One forum was to come together as a community, similar to the vigil planned for Monday, and another was a conversation with the Montgomery County police chief about creating better understanding between both communities.

Russell and Johnson said that this vigil continues the Galvanize DC mission of supporting artists of the African diaspora and all black lives. Both spoke to the importance of standing with trans black people.

“Our trans brothers and sisters are being beaten and killed, sometimes by our own,” Russell said.

“Just for existing,” Johnson said.

“Just for being who they are,” Russell said. “And that is the most ridiculous thing. So yes, all black lives matter.”

Moving forward, Russell and Johnson believe that DC theaters must commit to anti-racism efforts. As Russell put it, “Making Space To Breathe/Gathering To Grieve” is on June 8.  Protests will eventually subside, but the work continues.

“It’s gotta be real, it just can’t be cosmetic. It just can’t,” Russell said.  “Especially at this time, when there is severe lack of national political leadership, we have to do the work ourselves. That goes without saying. That would be the case even if 44 was still in the office. We have to do the work ourselves. He would be out there saying that. He said that yesterday. The work is up to us.”

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