“[The legacy of slavery] has certainly created a disease where we’ve become indifferent to the victimization of black and brown people. And we have to treat that disease.”–Bryan Stevenson, in “Pain and terror: America remembers its past,” The Guardian video, April 26, 2018
This collage of writings, photos, and a sound piece reflects on a pivotal journey by a group of Playback practitioners to the Legacy Museum and its associated National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
In 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, began work on what was to become “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people.” The museum and memorial opened in 2018. Together they confront the poisoned harvest of racism that continues to this day.
We welcome your comments as part of the long dialogue in the Playback community about race, racism, and responsibility: our unavoidable inheritance.
Jonathan Fox: Playback in Montgomery
Annie Hoffman: Montgomery 8
Pamela Freeman: Lynching is not over
Phyllis Labanowski: Dear white America
Will Chalmus: Ripples in the water
Brandon Sloan: Dirty south
Sarah Halley: Breaking open
Jo Salas: Seven Playbackers and an artist go to Alabama
The first afternoon in Montgomery we all went on a tour of the Dexter Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s church (now renamed the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church), which sits just one block from the Alabama State capitol, with its monuments to the Confederacy. The tour guide was an outgoing, larger than life personality named Wanda Battle, who refused to let us be passive, impersonal bystanders. She made a historic visit that much more, and at the end, to repay her kindness for giving us so much of herself, one of our group told her who we were, and we offered to do a fluid sculpture for her.
She accepted without an ounce of hesitation. Sitting beside her in the first pew as conductor while she watched the “stage,” I felt a moment of joy—joy to see the actors’ faces, so engaged in this thing I love, joy to see Wanda Battle’s face of intense engagement, and yes, I must admit, joy to find myself engaged in playback theatre in this very special sanctuary.
The next day, after a morning and afternoon spent confronting our history in the museum and at the memorial, I was far from feeling joy. I was beset with images—of children separated from their parents forever; of angry white faces; of prisoners in orange jumpsuits; of facts on the wall, and more facts on the wall; and later, of rows and rows of sepulchral hangings. The encounter with so much white cruelty and so much black suffering was difficult to bear. I could only let it in so far.
Afterward when we gathered in our hotel suite, prior to going out to dinner, the air, electrified by our ordeals, was turbulent. We bickered over small things until Brandon stopped us. “Is this what we came for?” he asked. We paused. We regarded each other. With the ease that comes from a long attachment to spontaneity, we changed course. We decided to order food in rather than move to a public place. We decided to share through playback.
There was hardly room, but three actors took the space. Two chairs held a rotating conductor and teller. Each person told; each narrative was enacted. We touched on many aspects of our journey that day in ways that were more allusive than precise. Yet there was space for all. We listened to each one of us. At the end, we said good night and went to sleep, relatively calm, relatively content with our evening.
For the future
The next morning, half of us flew home, while the other half attended the Sunday service at the Dexter Ave. church. It was youth day, which meant that the ceremony was conducted as much as feasible by the children of the congregation. As kids of all ages led us in prayers and homilies, it was impossible not to feel joy again, this time mixed with a profound sadness as well as sense of wonder and admiration. Despite inexpressible oppression, this people had survived. Unable to be crushed by slavery, post-Reconstruction terror, and mass incarceration, the resilience of generations of forebears was made manifest in the presence of these children, whose bell-like voices led us forth.
8 friends (including me)
took a leap
a flight (delayed in Charlotte)
to the land of grits and Wanda!
(You could meet her too
at the Dexter Ave church)
and lynching, really lynching?
did you say lynching?
that’s why we went –
not to gawk
but to face
and flinch and face and flinch
and digest the indigestible.
I met Kuntrell Jackson (look him up)
born in Arkansas
imprisoned in Arkansas
standing in the Legacy museum
O what a legacy!
he said it’s his healing
to free him and all juveniles
from the yoke of a life sentence
finally a memorial
to 4,400 (plus 380 more people recently recovered)
breathe and grieve (how?)
death ain’t always natural
that’s for sure
and who’s hanging now?
Certainly not those responsible
all white juries (by law)
turned lynching to death penalty
death penalty to death row
death row to Jim Crow to maximum minimum
to let’s just stand “our” ground
and shoot black people down in the street
just us for us whites
no justice for blacks
no reparations for
lives lost, parents and children
property and businesses lost
peace of mind lost
love of country shattered
to shattered lives
to intergenerational trauma
it’s happening now
his young, black queer friend
fellow organizer –
our first night
that’s how the trip begins
we can’t sew fast enough
to keep us from fighting (internally, externally)
but by the time
we’re ordering Thai food
we have our voices
intacting (that’s a verb)
we share something
even just a fluid sculpture
seeing my terror (thank you Jo)
to bring me back to life
pump another breath out, in
when I’m scared
I can’t feel
O…this a familiar pattern
when I sense rupture
I remember now
my own attempt
to silence myself forever
we better change the narrative
we are sensitive
we are human
we care about each other
this is natural
I cuddle with Will
we talk farts in the room
3 women exchange foot massage
I know I heard laughter.
I commit to you
to hold each other up
to have gratitude
and I will never forget
nothing can shatter our new family
we made it through
we made it to
the heart of the story
the red thread?
8 people, 3 black, 5 white
set off together
to witness the great and ongoing wounding
continue to sew the stories
and have the feelings.
We are alive
in this age of mass incarceration.
Keep facing the wounding
These “Racial terror lynchings”
We are alive,
we will slay the dragon (internally, externally)
we will love on each other
white to white (thank you James Baldwin)
white to black (impossibly)
you lead, I follow (I did it again)
you speak, I listen (do I really hear?)
when a white person says, “I love you to death!”
Brandon, Will, Phyllis, Pamela, Jo, Sarah and Jonathan and myself
Thank you for making this trip happen
My heart is forever bigger.
Being with a group of people I trusted was how I got through the Legacy Museum.
Montgomery, Alabama was always a trigger for me: my mother’s mother died in childbirth as Black people were not admitted to white hospitals in Alabama. This was not talked about much in my family so I did not ask questions till I was older. But, I grew up seeing pictures of snarling dogs biting Black folks who were protesting and police beating and spraying hoses of cold water on Black people. For me the south was a dangerous and scary place especially Alabama and Mississippi–two places not on my bucket list.
Shortly after the museum opened a few people I knew who had visited the museum told me I had to go. I read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy and knew I had to go but kept putting it off as I did not want to go by myself. I knew I could not handle all the feelings that would come up. When Jonathan called and asked if I wanted to go with him and Jo, I saw this as the perfect opportunity and said yes. However I wanted more support from Black and White people I had worked with on race issues but agreed to keep the group small.
I invited Sarah, Phyllis and Will C. Will C invited Annie and Brandon. The eight of us lived together for a weekend, sharing beds, food, and a rented van, sharing our stories, tears, reactions of anger, grief and sadness around a history of white hatred and rage that resulted in the lynching of Black people. Walking into the museum and seeing the old signs of Whites only, Blacks and Jews not allowed, and knowing that in 2019, while there are no signs, Blacks are still questioned and not allowed in public places—Starbucks, hotels, etc. And the new Jim Crow. Black men and women, even with hands up, being shot daily. Shooting Black men and women is the new form of lynching. The prison industrial complex a close second. As I was leaving the museum I looked into a window display with bars and saw a little Black girl asking over and over again, “Have you seen my mommy?” It brought me to tears. In 2019, Latino, African, and Haitian children are asking every day “Where is my mommy?” as border patrols round them up, some never being reunited with their parents. Same story, different century. I give thanks to our group of eight.
Phyllis Labanowski: Dear White America
(sound piece: click to listen)
HOW DOES YOUR STORY BEGIN?
I needed a vacation and this was the closest thing I was going to get. A compilation of noteworthy Playbackers and empathetic human beings traveled to Montgomery, each one intent on confronting our stake in the racial history of the United States. I purposefully avoided reading much about the museum, fearing I would taint the experience by over analyzing things before I went. To preemptively balance the emotional scales I expected to rock, I began a Facebook series, sharing daily videos of black people engaged in “black joy.”
I also invited two local Playback Theatre colleagues, hopeful we would transcend our thinking on the subject. To us, boarding the plane felt like going to a funeral. I set an intention to celebrate the lives of those lost, as it felt more culturally relevant and respectful than to use the time and space to mourn.
At maximum altitude we discussed the roles we wanted to play and which roles we did not. I am aware I have the most associations with people on this journey; it’s a privilege and burden. So many hats to choose from. I ponder how my role on this trip is to validate white people as they encounter their whiteness. How does having a “safe” black presence validate our journey to understand our ancestors? Are they OUR ancestors?
WHAT HAPPENS IN YOUR STORY?
That second room at the museum happened. It was dark. Caged holograms demonstrated and named the pains of enslaved humans. I held onto the bars listening as if life depended on it… At some point my perspective just snapped; as I looked at my hands on those cold metal bars I begin to feel that I was the one in the cage. I carried this new perspective with me for the rest of the trip. It has become the filter through which I view life at home.
Before departing Alabama, I found myself increasingly revolted by the frequent statements that “more white people need to see this.” Is it possible for black people to have pride in anything without white people making it about them? At the same time I am fully aware of the positive impact these sites could have on any population. Luckily, I am amongst people that are ready and willing to discuss the paradoxical nature of these feelings.
Once home, I struggled to find someone to debrief the process with, and returned to work at Brandeis University. I excitedly brought the students of my Provocative Arts course to see Anna Deveare Smith receive an award. She embodied three theatrical monologues as part of her acceptance speech, each one based on personal narratives derived from interviews. Her final enactment contained the words of Bryan Stevenson reflecting on race in his personal life. I subtly wipe away the tears.
HOW DOES YOUR STORY END?
It doesn’t…but I need it to.
A month after returning, I sat in the living room of Annie, the white colleague I invited on the trip. I am surrounded by other, mostly older white, faces at a fundraiser she organized for “Families for Justice as Healing,” an organization that is working to end the incarceration of women. I am full of pride as Annie raised over $25,000 for the cause in a short time, but I am also torn. I can not help but see how much of the resources needed to help is in the hands of an oppressive class, and that salvation for my people requires coaxing that class into charity.
I have 8 jobs. After an unexpected phone call, I picked up a 9th…I cannot unsee how that is the evolution of forcing enslaved humans to work until the muscle literally fell off their bones. I am reminded that being invincible is in my DNA, and of the toll that it takes. Recently, I was gifted penthouse seats at an Alvin Ailey performance. I was perplexed as the audience clapped slightly offbeat to “Wade in the Water,” turning a secret message for freedom into pop culture. As I watched the black bodies physically morph across the stage I heard the song lyrics whisper in my ears that our secrets are still safe and necessary. That extension to my senses happens all the time now.
I used to call it the lynching museum. I understand now why it is called the Legacy Museum. We are still here! Still wading through the muck…
This is not where my story begins but, I am the son of people who were once enslaved in America. I am also a son of the earth and I plan to reconnect with her dirt before, during and after I die. In the dirt, not the mind, may we find our liberation. The dirt of our past is the way to the now. The dirt that eats the bones of our ancestors is still here. The minerals of our body match the dirt, the same dirt where we will return. To face our past means we can see that we’ve never really left the past. The dirt is still all around us, calling us, beckoning us in life, death and re-birth. I am thankful for the dirty work we did in Alabama on some week in Black History month. I am thankful for the people and the work, for the art and the feeling. I honor messy life, clean death and the dirt we call earth. This is an unedited spontaneous poem I wrote in a hotel room with diverse Playback leaders from around the country. We were very hungry and tired after talking long and hard about race, and after having been at a museum that honored the ancestors hung up on trees for the crime of melanin, for matching the color of dirt. May we see ourselves more clearly now.
We are going to the depths
With humor and a flashlight
We will laugh, even cry…
Dancing takes place in the night
There is no space so vast
The deeper we go into humanness
Breaking and toiling in own soil and minerals
Going deeper into deeper meaning
Worms sliding, tangled
To the bedrock of our mother
To the core of our humanity
Heat deep in the earth’s core
May our water transform and cool it,
The core of the earth, the core of our being
In the depths, may we grasp for our own
And then birth
May we be born
Birth, birth in the depths
It is no longer so that death is the ending
Is not a reaction
Is a necessity in the depths
From this place we come
From this place we return
Human, once again
A few reflections…
I learned a new name. Racial Terror Lynchings.
I thought I knew about lynching in America, about slavery and the cruelty white people, my ancestors, inflicted on African people. It’s clear to me that I knew very, very little. Even now I can see I have barely scratched the surface of our collective history.
In thinking about making the trip I asked myself “how could I face this history?” I also asked myself “how could I not face it?” And then I bought my plane ticket.
For days, and even weeks leading up to the trip I felt queasy, uneasy, unsettled, agitated. I knew I had to go, I knew some part of me wanted to go and look this terrible past in the eye. Part of me was scared, resistant. And part of me knew and knows that the past has not gone anywhere and this terrible present begs for me to look at it. Daily. Daily I am confronted with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and racial terror lynching. Daily I move with the legacy of white supremacy and the protection it offers me. Daily I struggle with keeping my heart open and finding actions that confront injustice and offer some repair, some shred of healing.
Somehow I made it there – we made it there – to Montgomery, Alabama.
We gathered together in the hotel for breakfast before setting off to the Legacy Museum. We shared our feelings and what support we might need. Most of us did not know what we would need…we were in new territory, individually and collectively. One white woman said she would be leaning on the other white women for support. Later on I was so grateful for that insightful naming, as I reached for a white woman in our group at one point and we became 3 white women holding each other up, keeping each other open and present to the immense story unfolding in and around us.
Three steps into the museum, in the first room, my tears started. I willed myself to stay present, open, brave. A part of me has longed for the truth, for the chance to break through the hardened shell around my heart. Part of me is still in that first room, and in every step that came after.
At one point I found myself surrounded by advertisements, floor to ceiling, of people for sale. I felt dizzy, the ground disappearing under my feet. All the stories of children ripped from their parents, families torn apart, heart after heart broken again and again, and again. We were literally standing in a place where people were held, after being transported by train, boat, or their own feet, held captive until they made their way to the auction block in front of the capital building to be sold, down river.
I learned another new name – the Domestic Slave Trade – that grew once the transatlantic slave trade was made illegal in 1808. A brutal, devastating system that broke up over ½ the families of enslaved people. And once slavery was made illegal (except if someone is convicted of a crime), people spent the rest of their lives searching for their loved ones, with little success.
It has been 6 weeks since our time together in Montgomery. I have been in many racial dialogues, trainings, and meetings since then, and I am still processing the experience. I feel grateful for all the people I know and interact with who care deeply about healing racial trauma and confronting white supremacy. I feel devastated by the ongoing overt racism around me and especially in the US right now. I continue to feel like I am simultaneously unraveling and growing stronger, that I am profoundly insignificant and that my every action matters.
Most recently I was on vacation in Arizona, hiking. My 5-year-old son was wearing a t-shirt I got him from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka the lynching memorial). Two older white men on the trail asked about it and I told them it was a new memorial in Montgomery that honors the over 4,400 victims of racial terror lynchings in the US. They seemed surprised and did not respond and we continued on the trail. I was struck by how simple the exchange was and I was curious about what they were left with.
In the past 6 weeks I have this strong and consistent desire to talk about the museum, the memorial, and to encourage white people to go there. The path from enslavement to mass incarceration is so clear and I want white people to see it, to take it seriously, and to engage in working for racial justice.
Life goes on, and part of me is still there…breaking open.
The idea of visiting this epicenter of American racial history started with Jonathan, who suggested it to me and then to Pamela Freeman in Philadelphia, our longtime friend and colleague, and a leader in the efforts to address racism within the Playback community. The vision took form: we would make a pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the Peace and Justice Memorial, about 1,000 miles away, in the company of a small group of fellow Playbackers. We reached out to Will Chalmus, a young Playback teacher and performer; and to Sarah Halley, who’s worked for racial justice for years, often in partnership with Pamela. Will brought in Brandon Sloan and Annie Hoffman, his close Playback associates in Boston. Pamela brought in Phyllis Labanowski, an artist and activist in rural Massachusetts, the only one of the group not a Playback practitioner. So we were eight–three African American, five white, five women, three men, from 30 years old to mid-70s, and all but one with strong Playback Theatre backgrounds.
Why did we choose to have this experience with fellow-Playbackers? Most of us have non-Playback activist friends who might have been interested in going to Montgomery. What did difference did it make that this group was connected primarily through our shared involvement in the practices and philosophies of Playback?
One element was the possibility of actually doing Playback for ourselves during the trip. But there was also something less concrete: a way of being in the world that develops in most of us who practice this work. Here are five aspects of this way of being, and how they played a part in our Montgomery experience.
As Playbackers we understand the importance of sociometric connection in creating a group. Confronting our society’s anguished racial realities—in the present as well as the past—was certain to be painful. We were likely to feel vulnerable and exposed as individuals. Feeling well-connected to others would help us face what we had to face. Our group grew organically around a nexus of people with longstanding relationships, with further outreach to others not known to all of us but linked strongly to at least one member. This network of connections allowed a basis of trust—not unshakeable, and proportionate to how well we knew each other, but still, an attitude of trust.
Emotional presence and honesty
We consciously entered a zone of uncertainty. Comfort was not the goal. We had to be open to wherever our responses to the exhibits and to each other might take us.
In preparatory phone discussions we discussed our wish to be present with whatever arose, including grief, shame, rage, and despair. Emotion is the currency in Playback. Without the sincere expression of emotion Playback does not function. The feelings we anticipated came up full force, almost unbearably, as we witnessed brutal images of racism past and present. And how to express those feelings? In the museum I shrank in horror from a life-size photo of white people grinning beside the dangling limbs of a murdered black man. Whose shoulder do I weep on? Am I imposing my grief onto someone who is struggling even more than me?
Spontaneity and creativity
We could not know what we might encounter nor how it might resonate within us. We leaned on our capacity to respond spontaneously to whatever we saw and heard. Our artistic imaginations were stirred by the stunning artistry evident at the museum and the memorial. We said yes to creative impulses. At the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, after our guide Wanda Battle had shared generously from her knowledge and her life experience, and then led us in a heartfelt song, it felt right to offer her a moment of Playback Theatre. At the end of an exhausted evening after the museum and memorial, we said yes to the suggestion of using Playback to listen to each other.
Eight people, eight life paths, eight points of view. Ancestral connections, known and unknown, to the racist history documented in Montgomery. Differences of ethnicity, age, class, and nationality. Our responses to the experience were as diverse as we were and we needed to hear from each other. Playback has taught us to listen, knowing that–when there is readiness to speak–our deep listening opens new spaces and fosters understanding. During our long Saturday we had grouped and regrouped, sitting all together over a meal, drifting in twos and threes, sometimes alone, as we walked among the exhibits, sometimes receptive to one another’s turbulent currents of thought and feeling, at other times struggling with irritation or misunderstanding. At the end of the day, saturated and weary, we gathered in the small living room of one of the hotel suites to listen to one another and begin to digest what we had seen. But there was so much. Where to start? On what level do we share? The dialogue began scratchily and grew complex. We decided to use Playback and cleared a tiny stage area, taking turns as conductor, actors, teller. With the invocation of the ritual the atmosphere became capacious. One voice at a time. One story. Full attention. The actors’ empathetic, aesthetically formed responses.
It was the first time that Phyllis, the artist, had seen Playback. “Now I understand,” she said thoughtfully after everyone’s voice had been heard. “I see how the dialogue slows down. We really hear each other.”
Of course stories are at the heart of Playback. It doesn’t take long, when someone immerses herself in Playback, to start experiencing her own life as a series of stories: whatever happens to us, we imagine how it could be told, shaped, and enacted on the Playback stage. Plenty of stories were told in our short time together, over meals, squashed into the minivan, walking along Montgomery’s wide and surprisingly empty streets, or sitting outside a little grocery store in the warm night on chairs kindly brought out for us by the owner. A few story fragments were enacted: Wanda’s, that first day in the church, and then our sorrow-laden moments on Saturday night. But here we are again, in this collective article, choosing what to tell, how to tell, shaping and sharing our reflections, in order to metabolize what happened to us and to offer our perceptions to others.
Will Chalmus (Will C.) is a performing artist, educator, and consultant that specializes in Playback Theatre, and also enjoys creating artistic events that develop positive relationships across difference.
Jonathan Fox is the co-founder of Playback Theatre with Jo Salas.
Pamela Freeman is a psychotherapist by training and occupation, and activist by choice. She is the co-founder of Playback for Change in Philadelphia as well as founder and co-leader of the People of Color meditation group in Philadelphia.
Sarah Halley is a playback practitioner, organizational consultant, coach and mom who is committed to working for racial justice and equity.
Annie Hoffman is a daughter, friend, sister, mother, lover of earth, abolitionist yogi woman.
Phyllis Labanowski, an art worker in western MA, was raised working class in a racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic community which has fueled a life-long passion for justice. www.phyllislabanowski.com
Jo Salas is a New Zealand-born Playback pioneer, writer, and social justice activist.
Brandon Sloan is a somatic healer living in Boston, Massachusetts. He does playback with Will Chalmus of Playback in the Port. He is excited about how embodiment, art and social justice can come together for public works and as tools for transformative change.