Fellow playwrights Paula Vogel, Teo Castellanos, and myself sat down with Polly Carl to discuss my decision to boycott Florida, the Trayvon Martin case, and the complicated role of the Artist Activist in the 21st Century. Read on and join in on the conversation @ Howlround.com Here:
Dear Nick Conroy,
Thank you for your invitation to participate in a three-week engagement at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida. I was initially thrilled to come. As you explained it to me, the nature of the work I’d be doing at the Center-blending presentation with teaching the craft of playmaking to emerging artists is exactly the kind of artistic engagement I love to do. Also, the financial honorarium you and your organization offered was generous indeed, and would’ve went a long way towards helping my wife and I build a future for our family, which is where much of my energy is going these days.
However, I cannot accept your invitation. Recently in the state of Florida, a young, unarmed African-American man, was senselessly gunned down for no reason other than that he looked “suspicious” by one George Zimmerman. I am an African-American man, and so are many members of my family and community, and one day my son will be an African-American man. It doesn’t feel right to engage in the artistic and spiritual practice of creating theatre in a state that has a Stand Your Ground Law, a law that basically condones the use of violence against African-American men, as was the case with Trayvon Martin.
In making this decision I have consulted many friends and mentors. One of the arguments I have heard in favor of me coming and working in Florida is that I am not Jay-Z or Justin Timberlake, and that me not coming to the Sunshine State would not have much of an economic impact. True, I am not a celebrity. I am a working artist, I travel nationally and internationally creating and presenting works of theatre, while teaching and engaging diverse communities. For me, the idea that only artists who can fill arenas should participate in a boycott is ludicrous. If anything, it is the so-called arts-activists who should be active in this stand against racial injustice. I’ve also been advised to go to Florida to “work and make change from the inside.” This is a valid argument. But at the core of this three-week engagement is a residency in which like minded artists would fly from all over the country to study theatre under my leadership-so if I’m asking them to come to Florida, where this horrible atrocity happened and a killer walks free, and a law is in place to allow future killers to walk free, then exactly where am I leading these emerging artists? What message am I sending to them, and what will they take back to their communities? That it’s ok to cross a boycott and not join in on the stand against racial injustice as long as you’re doing and learning something “positive?” This line of thinking doesn’t hold for me.
In closing, I’d like to say that I’ve heard nothing but stellar things about your organization, both the work that it does and the ways it fosters creative learning and growth amongst artists. Once the Stand Your Ground Law is repealed in Florida, I would be more than willing to revisit the possibility of me coming to the Atlantic Center for the Arts. In the meantime, if you and/or the Center decide to produce a fundraiser, or any event specifically geared towards changing the Stand Your Ground Law and ending the racial injustices that have happened and continue to happen, I will quickly get on a plane and come down to help the cause in any way I can. We MUST repeal the Stand your Ground Law. Until that time, I won’t play Florida.
Brother Sekou Sundiata was a phenomenal Harlem poet, playwright, composer, and educator who touched the lives of many through his works and his life. 4 months of poetry, music, and the remounting of his poetic dramas will be going down from now to October. I am thankful to be a part of “blessing the boats: the
remix,” a piece that was originally performed by Sekou as a solo work, and is now being presented by three of us-Carl Hancock Tux, Mike Ladd, and myself. Just finished rehearsal a few house ago-staying in a hotel that looks over the World Trade Center. Death and life, in the window, all around, and within Sekou’s piece. It’s a beautiful piece, an unbelievable, poetic journey in which Brother Sekou lays it all out, an amazing work that continues to deepen as we continue to explore. Hope to see you all there at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center here in New York City. For more info on blessing the boats: the remix, click here, for more info on the life and work of Sekou Sundiata, click here.
This fall, we will bring my play “Fetch Clay, Make Man” to New York for it’s premiere. The drama explores the true but little known friendship between a young Muhammad Ali and old school screen actor Stepin Fetchit. For more info, see the announcement in the New York Times here.