Can theater create community?
The people behind the August Wilson Center for African American Culture's Uprise: Raising Black Men Project believe it can do that and more. On May 6 and 7, the Center premieres Testimony, a play about African-American men of all ages simply telling stories to each other -- stories about fathers and sons, racism, war, family history and just getting by in life.
Testimony was written by local writer and educator Tameka L. Cage as part of a Wilson Center Fellowship. Cage, in turn, drew on work by Mississippi-based musicians Maurice and Carlton Turner, brothers who founded the group M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction). The Turners facilitated a series of interviews and story circles with black men in Pittsburgh -- story circles much like the one Testimony depicts.
The 30 or so real-life story circles, conducted starting last fall, included everyone from Imani Christian Academy students and youths at Shuman Juvenile Detention Facility to local performers, Carnegie Mellon students, members of anti-drug, anti-gang group Mad Dads, and Vietnam veterans.
Characters in Testimony include a disaffected teen-ager named Donnell, an opinionated elder named Abraham, a city cop, a suburban college student and a community activist. There are also stand-ins not only for the Turners themselves but also for Bill Strickland, the famed founder of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.
"The thing I really love about it is they're true stories," says the Center's director of theater initiatives, Mark Clayton Southers, who's directing the show.
The large cast includes local favorites Jonathan Berry, Jonas Chaney, Lonzo Green, Carter Redwood and Leslie "Ezra" Smith, plus guest star Anthony Chisholm (of TV's Oz).
Playwright Cage sought to address what she calls the community's "slumber" concerning the violent deaths of young black men. "I felt like people were becoming desensitized, and there's tragedy all around," says Cage.
Yet that desensitization seemed symptomatic of another issue: the stories we tell, and are told, about how black men are. That those stories are seldom told by African Americans accounts in part for the stereotypes we're stuck with. Black audiences, meanwhile, seldom see themselves truthfully reflected on stage and screen. As a character in Testimony says, "Everybody wants us ... quiet."
Cage, who teaches at Chatham University, says that to tell your own story in public (or see it told) is to feel validated, and empowered with the ability to define your own identity.
"My hope for the play is that people will see it and begin to replicate [story circles] in some form in the community," says Cage.
The story circles sparked insights about Pittsburgh's black community.
"The thing that was suprising was that there were so many African Americans of all ages that were interested in change," says Carlton Turner -- but also, he says, that so few of them knew each other, and instead worked mostly in isolation.
"We're not used to talking. We're used to having these walls up," agrees local filmmaker Chris Ivey, who documented many of the story circles.
Moreover, says Cage, "There was no real connection between the generations of African Americans." For instance, elders were unconnected to anyone they might mentor. "Everyone said that's what we're missing. I try to recreate that in the play."
Meanwhile, another question is whether, in a culture dominated by electronic media, you can effect change through live theater. Cage acknowledges theater is considered an "elite art form," inaccessible to many. But she believes that stories drawn from the community can draw the community to the theater.
"We all have a stake in these lives," she says. "We all have a stake in these stories."
THE AUGUST WILSON CENTER presents TESTIMONY 8 p.m. Fri., May 6, and 8 p.m. Sat., May 7. 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20. 412-456-6666 or www.augustwilsoncenter.org
On, Thu., May 5, from 5-9 p.m., M.U.G.A.B.E.E. visits the Center's offCenter showcase for a night of music. Free.
- Carlton Turner (left) and Maurice Turner of M.U.G.A.B.E.E.