At a time marked by racial strife and deep-seated social and economic inequity, one theatrical work paints a picture of the struggles and successes of Black people in the United States.
Partnering with the DuSable Museum of African American History and Chicago’s NPR station WBEZ, "1619: The Journey of a People" aired a virtual performance on Aug. 20, the 401st anniversary of the arrival of the first 20 Africans in the United States at Point Comfort, Virginia.
Noting the impactful nature of this historic event, producer Ted Williams said before the show that “the years that follow [the arrival of the first 20 Africans] would change a nation and also change the world.”
Williams also pointed out the importance of learning Black history: “Black history is American history. You cannot understand America’s journey if you can’t understand our journey.”
The performance took the viewer through a timeline of significant events for Black people in America through the eyes of three characters, and was divided into segments, from Frederick Douglas’s 4th of July speech in 1852 in which he famously asked “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July...a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim,” to the Great Migration to the Black Lives Matters protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Depicting protesters with masks being interviewed by a news reporter’s voice, one actor said: “The US government has declared war on black progressive organizations, on our communities, on black people. The police are their tool for subjugating us..it is time to fight back.”
The performances also referenced other contemporary instances of police brutality such as the case of Laquan McDonald, in which a government cover-up followed the murder of a 17-year-old boy who was shot by a police officer 16 times.
Notably, the performance touched upon the place of the University of Chicago on the South Side. “On one side of the street is the home of Nobel laureates, scholars, and even a future president. And on the other side of the street is the ghetto, the hood, the reminder of America’s racial sins towards people that look like me,” said one character who said he attended the U. of C. for graduate school and was tired of having to change himself based on which community he was in. “I had to change the way I walked depending on what side of the street I was on.”
The theater experience also addressed the current administration: “We just took a 50-year step backwards in America by electing a man who was a reality TV star. And he wants to make America great again, but the greatness of America has always been limited by the greatness of its greatest sins: racism, xenophobia, and the oppression of millions of people paradoxically in a nation in which Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal.”
“The president stokes the fire of racial hatred with the power of a single tweet…Social progress does not come from one protest. It must be won every single day.”
And yet "1619" maintained a hopeful tone. Echoing the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one character said in a spoken word performance that “we must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”
Ending with a musical performance of the African-American spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” the final tone was positive and powerful: “The road has been long, it has been rough but we will continue on this journey, and we shall overcome.”
The production is creating a six-week online course with information from the performance to launch in September 2020 on 1619musical.com