8:46, a theatrical response to injustice

This article originally appeared on Them+Us Media

“Soon, very soon, I will be dead.”

This is the first sentence of “I Am A Man,” a short piece written by Julian Tushabe, a student at Skidmore College.

Tushabe performed the work (which was written by Marcus Gardley) for “8:46,” a theatrical response from the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York to the murders and assaults of Black people in the United States throughout history.

Tushabe’s piece was one of seven mini-plays, each of which ran for exactly eight minutes and forty-six seconds, that encompassed the live streamed event earlier this week.

Eight minutes and forty-six seconds is the length of time George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis by police officers, was on the ground with an officer’s foot on his neck.

Jean-Remy Monnay, the artistic director of Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, said during an introduction prior to the show’s start, that it has been a difficult time to be Black in America over the last few weeks. Not that it had ever been easy, he added.

“This has been a rough couple of months. It has been a rough 400 years,” Monnay said.

The murder of George Floyd was the spark that reignited an ongoing wave of protests and rallies, nationwide and locally, demanding that the Black Lives Matter movement be heard and seen.

Monnay explained that he had been looking for a way to participate himself, and realized that the movement could be served by doing what he knows best: art.

“The way I protest is through my theater. The way I raise my voice is through theater,” he said.

After reaching out to a handful of local theater groups, including the Capital Repertory Theatre and the Troy Foundry Theatre, Monnay soon put together “8:46,” as the way for other Black artists to tell their stories and showcase their talents within the movement. To collaborate, each theater company submitted its own piece to be featured.

By the end, the show had raised at least $2,000. Half of the money will be used to compensate the performers, and the other half will be donated to African-American Cultural Center of the Capital Region.

The show itself was unstructured and free-flowing. While each performance was unique and told via a different medium, all stories centered on the theme of being Black in America.

Tushabe’s piece alternated between video clips of local Black Lives Matter protests and shots of himself and his family while his poem read out loud in the background. Sometimes the shot cut to Tushabe himself glaring directly into the camera and speaking, seeming to dare anyone to attempt to reason away the pain that he and other Black men had felt at the hands of systemic racism.

Speaking the last words of a dying Black Man, Tushabe said that he doesn’t want tears, or financial donations to his mother after his death. What he wants, he said, is never-ending action against racism.

“Until a night goes by in this country where another Black youth doesn’t become a casualty on the evening news,” he said.

Other pieces included a short play called “The Nub of the Issue, a reenactment of Civil Rights leader and senator Barbara Jordan and her testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee against the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and “Privilege”, a spoken-word performance during which six people, some Black and some white, all listed what they could do in eight minutes and forty-six seconds based on what their skin color allowed, including have an interaction with police without the threat of death looming.

Other performances literally portrayed commonplace issues that Black people in American are forced to suffer through on a daily basis. “Night Vision”, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Margo Hall, told the story of a Black couple who returned home after an evening out during which they encountered a man on the street attacking a woman.

After the woman in the play called the police to tell them about the attack, she and her husband engaged in a tense debate over whether or not she had done the right thing in calling the police at all, and whether or not the life of the man in the street was now directly in danger since she had identified him as Black, despite being unsure of the color of his skin.

The piece comes to a tense end when the husband leaves their home to go on a walk to cool down, bringing with him a hoodie despite his wife’s insistence that he leave it home. Police sirens begin to blare in the background of the scene.

After the show had run through all of its pieces, Monnay told his “8:46” audience that while he hoped the pieces they were moving to see, that it was also necessary the show be the first step in a long journey towards Black liberation.

Hopefully, he said, the stories told will be repeated to people who didn’t see the show, as will the call to become active in the fight.

“If you know anybody out there who is not willing to help, this is your job now,” Monnay said. “To go out there, to talk to education officials, politicians, senators, your congressman. Talk to your partner, your husband or your wife. And convince them that it’s time to change their heart. To join this cause, to make the world a better place.”

Tyler A. McNeil