Dallas — There have been countless books, films and plays about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 1976 Robert Patrick penned Kennedy’s Children, which examined the lives of several very different people and how the assassination shaped their personal stories. But how did the tragedy impact those who lived and worked in the Dallas community? What was the effect on the thousands of black men, women and children who placed their hopes for a better life in the hands of the nascent Kennedy administration?
Black at the Assassination, now playing at TeCo Theatrical Productions, was written by Dallas natives Kyndal Robertson and Camika Spencer. It examines what Dallas looked like for blacks in the early 1960’s and the deep grief that resulted when this national tragedy took place in their own city. The timing is perfect, as there are numerous commemorations to the 50th anniversary of that event happening in the coming month.
The play focuses mainly on the day of the assassination. It opens in a classroom, as Mrs. Brooks (Deon Q. Sanders) quizzes her students about what President Kennedy’s visit means to them and their understanding of his goals to help advance black rights. Sanders deftly coaxes answers from the well-rehearsed and charming children playing her students.
A children’s classroom is often a microcosm of adult society, so amidst the general optimism, Mrs. Brook’s question about desegregated schools is met with, “Why should I want to go to school with white people? They don’t want us and I don’t want them.”
The adults in Black at the Assassination reflect the same mixture of hope for the future and anger at the blatant racism of Dallas in the 1960’s. At the time, the Ku Klux Klan was active and crime against blacks often went unpunished. Jobs were scarce, black schools lacked appropriate materials and separate but equal was the law but hardly the reality.
In the ensuing scenes of Black at the Assassination, the writers turn its attention to the community response, both before and after the assassination. Ruth (JuNene K.), Marvin Gray (Otis Donnelly Watson) and Earl (Vontress Mitchell) are teachers gathering for a strike. The three actors offer a poignant portrayal of the frustration and powerless they feel about their city. Mitchell is a fiery activist, who storms and rails around the room, trying to whip the others into a fury. Ruth and Earl feel that the only way to evince change it to work within the system. The two are calm and measured in their words, except for a comic moment when Marvin dares to speak to Ruth to criticize her idol, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Ruth and Earl feel that working to get blacks elected to school boards and city council, instead of attempting insurrection are the methods that will bring results.
The same scene also tackles the tenuous relationship that existed between blacks and Hispanics. Junior Molina (Jose Silva) tells the three; “My father’s skin is darker than yours…” The discrimination faced by Latinos was similar, yet the bonds between the two groups both locally and nationally have often been strained.
The most effective scene in the play takes place in a church after the shooting. A man placed in the balcony represents the parishioners, the front row is populated with people in their Sunday best and a robed minister presides over it all. The hymn singing is powerful and evocative—in part because many of the production’s performers are trained vocalists, and they produce a rich and harmonious sound.
The sights are also attractive with costumes, designed by Cathey Ann Fears, noteworthy for their accuracy. Due to the simplicity of the set, the costuming does a great deal to draw the audience into the proper frame of reference.
The play is effective overall, though there are some scenes where the language appears to have been lifted directly from historical accounts instead of being character-driven. The play ends with a montage that brings the action up to present-day Dallas. The message is clear that gains have been made—we have a black President, after all—but true equity is still not at hand.
Black at the Assassination is part of the 20th anniversary of TeCo Productions. The company was founded to, “foster a diverse and vibrant arts community while creating sustainable opportunities for local and emerging artists through performances and education.” The staff and facility provides, “… cultural and artistic opportunities for children and families who live in at-risk communities …” It’s an important mission and Black at the Assassination is worth seeing.