The Power of Art and an Angry Black Audience

by P.A. Wray

January 4, 2014, is a day some theatre folks I know say they will never forget. I’m one. As a writer for the stage, as a southern white woman, as the author of the one-act play at the center of what transpired, and, as the one responsible for bringing this causal event together – it is definitely something I will never forget.

The tension that filled the room, the apprehension that rose in the cast member, the techie, and the writer’s family and friends as they began to sense that the ever-growing audience was beginning to sense – that something wasn’t right about the staged reading they had come to see.

Standing Room Only

The audience’s suspicions began to materialize when the director of the theater and the writer stopped bringing in additional chairs to seat the people who were waiting in the hallway and lobby.

The director went to speak to those standing, while I, the writer, took the seat in the middle of the room saved for me by a friend and the wife of the actor who was performing – she whispered in my ear, “I think the audience realizes D is going to be the one reading the part, and just look at them, I think they’re getting mad as hell. I hope Jeff says something soon.

“Just look at how restless they are – they keep looking for a different actor to walk in the room.”

Where Was the Black Actor?

Well, I hadn’t had the time to notice because I was too busy helping Jeff. I was also in a bit of shock because we all thought that since this Sunday was the official end of the Christmas/New Years’ celebration period that the audience would be light.

It was the very reason we chose this play – it would only require one actor and one techie, and, it was a proven piece that really didn’t need feedback. It was just put in to fill a slot in the Virginia Playwrights Forum’s agreement with The American Theatre to bring in a play once a month and present it as staged reading.

The theater director titled the event, First Sundays. Well, the First Sunday of 2014 was already showing us it was going to be quite extraordinary – in one way or another.

Theater Manager Jeff had to spend several minutes with the waiting crowd, none of them wanted to leave, so he arranged them so they wouldn’t be blocking exits.

As he did his thing, I looked around the room and agreed with my friend’s assessment. The man sitting directly in front of me was arguing with his wife – he wanted to go. She said,

No, I want to stay and see what these people are up to – and give them a piece of my mind if I need to.

Wow, I agreed with my friend, come on Jeff, get up there and explain things. Jeff finally ran up and got in front of the crowd – but he didn’t explain anything.

He said, “It’s great to have so many of you in the house tonight. As you can see we weren’t expecting this crowd. I want to thank you for your patience and for coming. And since we’re a bit behind, let’s get to it – we present to you Nat’s Last Struggle.”

D stood up at the music stand. The techie hit the sound cue for the voice over and we were off!

Feeling the Audience Anger 

The man in front of me had listened to Jeff and when he didn’t hear what he wanted, he tapped his wife on her arm and nodded to leave, she shook hers – no.

He crossed his arms across his chest forcefully and lowered his head not wanting to see D – this marvelous actor, playwright and journalist, who had seen this play many times – and who at the last minute agreed to stand in for the actor who fell ill and had called at 4 pm to say he couldn’t make it.

The Actor Faces an Angry Crowd

Bless D, the actor, he had had reservations about being a white man reading the part of Nat Turner, but I told him not to worry.

I didn’t think many would be in attendance and all we had to do was explain the circumstances and people would be forgiving.

But I was wrong and there he was standing in front of a mostly angry crowd waiting for the sound cue to end so he could begin.

Ironically, it was a voice over of the magistrate who was sentencing Nat to be hung by his neck until he was – “dead, dead, dead.” The tension in the room, while waiting for the next beat, for D to speak – was so intense I almost screamed.

But then he did speak and he was marvelous, and the techie was right on cue with all the music and the predominately African-American audience relaxed – and became totally engrossed. And I relaxed and went with them.

The Audience Talkback

At the end of the performance, Jeff did his talk back. He asked how many in the audience thought they really knew the story of Nat Turner. About six raised their hands. He followed with, “How does this play stand up to what you know?” Two spoke and praised the work, the others concurred when asked.

Then he asked about the actor. The man in front of me couldn’t wait to answer. He stated he was angry when he didn’t see a black actor up there and he wanted to leave but his wife wouldn’t let him.

He was so angry he wasn’t going to watch some white man play a black hero of his, so he hung his head and closed his eyes – he wasn’t going to have any part of it. He said he tried not to listen.

“But,” he went on, “I did begin to listen and the words and the music drew me in. I could feel the power in the words and the music that was used, it was perfect – and I had to watch. And when I opened my eyes, I didn’t see a white man, I saw Nat Turner.”

         I didn’t see a white man, I saw Nat Turner.

I was awed by that audience. I knew something very special happened that night. I also knew it would never leave me, it hasn’t – it inspired me! Something new was brewing for Nat Turner – I could feel it.

Get the play – Nat’s Last Struggle

Read more about playwright P. A. Wray

One thought on “The Power of Art and an Angry Black Audience

  1. I remember it well, especially the moment when I first had to speak as Nat, and I opened my mouth and a voice came out that I hadn’t practiced or planned but I knew right away that I’d just turned colors thanks to the magic of theater and that the audience was going to buy it. Definitely a night to remember.

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