You can't understand what someone else is going through until you've walked a mile in their shoes, so the saying goes. And while it would be unfair to suggest that any group of humans can relate to what happened to a black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma around Memorial Day in 1921, Erik Ehn's play Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 does a remarkable job of not just telling us an unfamiliar story, but of giving it dramatic heft in an utterly theatrical way, using conventional physical theater techniques in a fresh way.
It stirs emotions from sorrow to anger, and keeps the audience engaged throughout its 70 minutes. Simply put, it's powerful theater.
The show is one of four plays dealing with the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in Ehn's ambitious 17-play cycle Soulographie: Our Genocides. It's receiving a world premiere at Project X: Theatre, directed by Raphael Parry, who was a frequent Ehn collaborator in his days at Undermain Theatre. All 17 of the plays (Ehn says the cycle will eventually include more plays) will be presented in a festival at New York City's La Mama in November. The plays deal with an aspect of a genocide in which American policy was attached in some way; attempts not only to kill a specific group of people but to wipe out memory of them, in places such as Rwanda, El Salvador and Bosnia.
Using text, live music, pantomime, object puppetry and the most simple but effective use of video that a Dallas theater has yet managed, Diamond Dick tells the story of the title character, shoeshine boy Dick Rowland (played by Walter White), a black man who was accused by white woman Sarah Page (Jenni Pittman) of trying to rape her in Tulsa in 1921.
That led to talk of lynching, then counter-protests from the black community and, on June 1, a riot by Caucasians that resulted in the torching and destruction of many blocks in a black middle class section of town called Black Wall Street. According to the documentary-like retelling by the characters in Ehn's play, the rioters included members of the National Guard, War War I veterans and other military and law enforcement officials. Many were killed and injured, and black survivors were put in prison as if internment camps.
How could Americans turn so violently on the fellow inhabitants of its land, citizens even? It wasn't the first time, nor the last. While Ehn doesn't attempt to answer that question, he presents us with human faces and stories in a tragic episode of our history.
The section of the play dealing with the aftermath of the riot is what punches you in the gut, but Ehn smartly sets up the event by offering some context into the race situation in the town and the state before this event. Many blacks had moved there from the Deep South because lynching was still a common occurrence in states like Alabama. Turns out, the noose—rope is a functional tool and ominous visual symbol on Jeffrey Schmidt's set, which could be like the backstage of an entertainment of that era—wasn't avoidable in the plains, either.
Dennis Raveneau, Jamal Sterling, Rhonda Boutté and Stormi Demerson play various characters, and Ehn gives us affecting human stories, such as when a young girl played by Boutté recounts the tragedy when the movie theater she was in was burned. This Dreamland, this house of escape, turned out to be neither.
Jenni Pittman and Schmidt play the white characters, and Newton Pittman, in a role called "Sandman," plays an original soundtrack at stage right and offers brief narration and announcements of scenes.
Adding to the feel of a documentary, one that Ken Burns would be proud of, other performers and community members, including Vicki Meek, T.A. Taylor, Marcus Maudlin and Buster Spiller, were filmed in period costume and offer additional perspective in the video segments.
There's an occassional anachronism, such as when the cast sings "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess (which wasn't written until the 1930s), but a story of this magnitude transcends time and place. Ehn, Parry and this cast have given us some theatrical shoes in which we can try to comprehend a part of American history that some would prefer be buried.
◊ Read Mark Lowry's intrerview with Erik Ehn here.
◊ Project X has started at Kickstarter campaign to fund taking this show to New York to be part of the cycle. Learn more about that here.