Author and scholar Estella Conwill Majozo started writing her play shortly after racial justice protests began in Louisville in late May.
“We’re moving with the protesters, and this is an effort to offer a respite, to come in from the storm.”
The work, titled “To Manifest the Ancestral Dream,” is a direct response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the protests that followed. It debuts Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. in an old church at the corner of Broadway and W. 39th streets in Louisville.
The five-act play is “a crystallization,” as Majozo described it, of what’s occurring in city streets across the globe.
“This is art on the inside, but there is performative art in the streets every day,” Majozo said. “It has returned to its primary function in society to uplift and to inspire and to enact transformation… you have chants, you have dances, you have expressions of anger, expressions of grief, and all of that is what theater brings.”
Majozo has mounted the socially distanced production with an all-Black cast and creative team. In-person attendance will be limited and masks will be required as Kentucky has seen a recent escalation in new coronavirus cases. Black Lives Matter Louisville will also live stream it on their Facebook page.
Majozo said this performance space, the church, has significance.
“Much of our revolution, rebellion, strong hold, space of transformation, as far as Black people are concerned, has been very much inside the church,” Majozo said.
She said that justice is “sacred work that must be done.”
“Justice is for all of God’s children, not just for some of us,” she said.
It also has good sound, she added, and the afternoon sunlight coming through the opaque church windows gives the venue a sort of otherworldly feel.
The play opens with the character of the Watchman narrating, at one point reading: “The racial oppression, brutality and wanton murder of Blacks, often by police whose task is to serve and protect all members of society, has finally reached a tipping point.”
As the Watchman, Rick Dulin said his role is to provide a “kind of overview, not just from the perspective of the three characters, but I look at it from a community-based perspective, where murder and violence is a part of our community.”
Director rAmu Aki explained that the play shows a depiction of Arbery, Floyd and Taylor dying. They soon begin their transition to the afterlife.
“Then, through the acts they, step-by-step, transcend to their glorification as the martyrs that they are.”
It’s in his DNA and that of his ancestors to disseminate the struggles of humanity through art, Aki said.
“So, by sharing those stories, we share the understanding, we translate the experience from being locked within us as individuals into the collective experience,” he said.
Doing this play, right now in Louisville, is a “fulfillment,” said Aki.
“So many young people are experiencing the pain of watching one of their sisters in this community go down and have no consequence for that behavior,” William Hamiliton, the master of ceremonies for the production, said. “The structure of justice in this community is skewed. And this play points those realities out. We still, six months later, are begging for the details of how [Taylor] died. That’s not right.”
‘Catharsis of the soul’
Rev. Ron D. Robinson, who plays George Floyd, said he sees stepping into this role as much more than portraying one man.
“The George Floyd in the play, for me, is all the unborn Black male babies who will be born into a society where the politics is against them,” he said.
He believes this is a “transformational piece.”
“Art is the catharsis of the soul…This space creates a narrative space to come together as a community, all are invited, because art creates dialogue,” Robinson said.
Thirty-one-year-old William Henry Hamilton III, master of ceremony William Hamilton’s son, said he came out of an acting hiatus to do this play, and hopes he does Ahmaud Arbery justice.
“It’s been an unbelievable year in so many different ways. But the fact that I’m doing the first play I’ve done in almost a decade, it feels like now is the right time to do something like this,” he said.
Registered nurse Toni N. Berry portrays Breonna Taylor, which has been an emotional experience for her.
“I think that the life she wanted is the life that I’ve been granted. And that’s not fair… that was snatched from Breonna,” Berry said. “She was a person whose life was taken from her.”
One line in the play in particular cuts deep for Berry: “There was no camera in there for me. There were no eyes in there for me.”
“And I felt that every time I say that line,” Berry said. “That’s the hardest line… because I felt her pain coming through the pages.”
She hopes someone will hear that and think, “let’s make a change” to prevent this from happening again.