Word of Alton Sterling’s shooting came during rehearsal.
Already the Black Lives Matter movement was on everyone’s minds — it’s the theme tying together the seven stories in New Venture Theatre’s production, “Hands Up!”
The show’s two performances Saturday in LSU’s Claude L. Shaver Theatre come at a time when tension is high between Baton Rouge’s black community and law enforcement.
Sterling, a black man, was shot by Baton Rouge policemen. He died.
Incidents of this kind have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which inspired the New Black Fest to ask seven playwrights to write one-act monologues examining the movement.
Each playwright — Nathan James, Nathan Yunberberg, Idris Goodwin, Nambi Kelley, Glenn Gordon, Dennis Allen II and Eric Holmes — explored a different facet of the movement. The result is seven short plays in one meant to provoke thought and constructive conversations among its audiences.
But the subject is no longer just a stage show in Baton Rouge.
“We were in the middle of rehearsal when we found out about Alton Sterling,” says Greg Williams Jr., New Venture’s artistic director, who also is acting in this production. “I knew there was a reason we were doing this show. I didn’t know the timing would be so significant.”
While putting the season together last year, Williams told New Venture’s board of directors he wanted one of the plays to address social issues, to stimulate conversation. He had watched a reading of “Hands Up!” at the New Black Fest in North Carolina and knew he wanted to stage in Baton Rouge.
Williams also knew he wanted Chris Berry to direct it. Berry teaches theater at Florida A&M University in Tampa, though he calls himself a New Yorker. Williams had seen Berry’s staging of “Detroit 66” in Tallahassee.
Then the Sterling shooting happened on Berry’s first day in Baton Rouge.
“My first thought wasn’t shock, but anger and sadness for the family and a group of people who are still hurting,” Berry says. “We had to ask why this piece? Why now? It’s a cathartic experience, but it’s also hard and scary.”
Berry describes his staging as a boxing match, where each of the seven stories come at the audience in short bursts, like punches in a fist fight. Each actor is vying for his or her place on the stage, and the rest of the cast is somehow always supportive of the player at center stage.
The stories are rough, as is the language. Because it’s real.
“It doesn’t matter what race or gender you are from, what socioeconomic background you come from, this production will make you think,” Williams says. “I knew I wanted to audition for it, and my monologue is about a light-skinned black man who hasn’t been racially profiled, so he sees things differently.”
But Dorrian Wilson, the sole female cast member, steers the mood in a different direction with a story about an interracial relationship.
Wilson’s character had been dating a white man for a year, when he says he sees her only as a sexual object. She decides to confront him, and he beats her. Police are called, and he directs them toward her, and she ends up in jail.
“It’s heavy, but it’s also very common,” Wilson says. “It’s important at this time. It’s coincidental that we released the press on our play on the morning after the shooting.”
Wilson teaches theater classes at the Mentorship Academy in downtown Baton Rouge. Many of her students are from the area where the Sterling shooting took place.
“They were angry,” she says. “As a child, how do you process that? But as a teacher, I knew this play was the right thing to do.”