The Fountain Theatre is pleased to add Sherrick O’Quinn to its staff as Theatre Education Manager. In the newly-created position, Mr. O’Quinn is responsible for cultivating and strengthening all strategic community educational partnerships for The Fountain Theatre, enhancing its profile as an arts education leader in Los Angeles. Most important, he will oversee the theatre’s various arts education programs under the banner, Fountain for Youth. The programs include Walking the Beat and Fountain Voices.
Sherrick O’Quinn is an actor, educator, minister, and artist originally from Louisville, KY. He began his career in Louisville, KY working on stage and in film, TV, commercials and voiceover prior to moving to Los Angeles to complete his MFA in Acting degree at the University of Southern California. He formerly ran the GO College program which empowered and prepared at-risk high school students for college-going and career readiness prior to pursuing acting full-time. He spends his time acting, creating, coaching and working as a teaching artist. Sherrick is blessed to be part of Fountain Theatre’s mission to support and amplify diverse voices and create tangible change. His aim is to find intersections in art, work, and his daily life to be a change agent that encourages others to step into their voice, purpose, and light.
Among the many lessons learned in 2020, the most crucial may be our urgent need to have open and honest conversations about race in America. As the grisly video of George Floyd’s murder surfaced, it became painfully clear that we could not afford to look away. Protesters spilled into the streets of cities across the country with a powerful message: If we are silent about injustice, we are complicit.
Angie Kariotis, Program Facilitator and Curriculum Director for Walking the Beat Los Angeles, has devoted her work to fostering these difficult conversations. Kariotis, along with Fountain Theatre Board member Theo Perkins, created Walking the Beat as a tool for community building for high school students. The nine-week multi-media workshop combines performance, creative writing, film, and research to initiate positive interactions between youth and police.
The Arts Education program began in New Jersey in partnership with Elizabeth Youth Theatre Ensemble, and in 2019 the Fountain Theatre launched Walking the Beat Hollywood. This year, the Fountain expanded the program, making it possible for students and police officers outside Hollywood to participate. On August 25, the Fountain will screen Walking the Beat Los Angeles’ culminating multi-media presentation, BLACKOUT 2021.
I had the pleasure of talking to Kariotis about the evolution, impact, and future of this vital program.
–What kind of impact did the events of 2020 have on the students, based on your work with them this past month?
If we are scared as a nation, we will forget all the lessons hard learned. You can see it happening already. No one is talking about all the changes we want to keep. What do we want to keep? Instead of rushing to “normal” (which wasn’t!), 2020 necessitated an activation. We’re activated. One thing the students are is ready.
–Was it difficult getting the officers and students to open up?
No, it wasn’t difficult for anyone to open up, by themselves and with each other. People, and I believe most people, want to do just that. But they need permission and they don’t want to be alone doing it.
–How has the program evolved since its inception, particularly in the last year?
We got research-heavy this year. We turned this workshop into a popular education. We practiced critique and analysis. We studied. We grew into our work as research-based performance artists. We aimed to challenge public policy formally. We are working to move our practice into the theater that is public policy.
–How have your own background and experiences prepared you to do this?
I am studying design thinking and collaborative group processes. This framework is about divergent thinking, collaboration, experimentation, and honoring failure. Creativity — and not just the art-making transactional kind — is a necessary skill. We need people who are able to identify problems before they become problems.
–Who should see BLACKOUT 2021? Why?
Anyone who wants to know how to have hard conversations with others. People interested in learning how to get people to the table. How to talk about things no one knows how to talk about. Right now we all want to talk about a lot, but we don’t know how.
–What is your vision for the future of Walking the Beat and beyond?
For Walking the Beat, my vision is doing policy brief work, where we move beyond survivance and reconnect with the Earth. I wonder how our workshop can tackle the larger theme of power and how that affects our relationship with the planet. We talk about public safety. Do we have planetary safety? What does that mean? How is the way we treat each other impacting climate? This is the ethos moving me into this space and beyond.
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It is this passion and progressive vision that have inspired the ensemble of students and officers to create work that is bold, brave, and charged with the urgency of this moment in our country. In addition to serving as Program Facilitator and Curriculum Director of Walking the Beat, Kariotis offers community workshops for parents on How to Raise Anti-Racist Kids, works at Brookdale Community College as Director of Diversity and Inclusion/CCOG, and has published a chapter in Musing the Margins, an anthology examining the influence of culture and identity on the craft of fiction.
BLACKOUT 2021 will premiere on the Fountain Theatre’s outdoor stage this Wednesday, August 25, at 7pm. It will also be available to view on Fountain Stream in the fall.
France-Luce Benson is an award-winning playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
The Fountain Theatre has been awarded a WarnerMedia Arts and Culture grant funded by the AT&T Foundation to support Walking the Beat Los Angeles, a pioneering arts education program for inner city high school youth and police officers.
Now in its second year at the Fountain, Walking the Beat utilizes performing arts as a vehicle for youth empowerment and community building, providing transformative experiences for underserved youth and police officers.
Eighteen 9th through 12th graders from five Los Angeles area schools — Hawthorne High School, Hollywood High, Los Angeles High School of the Arts @ RFK, Pasadena High and San Pedro High — have been working since mid-June with two detectives from the Los Angeles School Police Department and one officer from the UCLA Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit to create Blackout 2021, an original multi-media performance work that focuses on the shift from a culture of incarceration to a culture of care. Each of the students receives a stipend as well as community service hours.
Written by Walking the Beat curriculum director and program facilitator Angela Kariotiswith original writings by the ensemble, Blackout 2021 is directed by Theo Perkins. Perkins is executive and artistic director of New Jersey’s Elizabeth Youth Ensemble, which created the program five years ago. The Los Angeles creative team also includes choreographer Nicholas Rodriguez, sheltered yoga instructor Tine LeMar and drama therapist Adam Stevens. Due to the pandemic, Blackout 2021 was conceived as a virtual/hybrid program and will be screened on the Fountain Theatre’s Covid-safe outdoor stage over the course of two evenings at the end of August.
“Although we all miss being on stage, there was an urgency to keep this work going,” says Perkins. “By taking advantage of the digital space, we were able to invite guest artists from all over the country to join us virtually to help generate writing and ideas. This virtual model of devising theater teaches us a lot about radical imagination, radical creativity, and challenges us to explore new methods of solidarity building.”
Kariotis states, “This summer, we integrated a design thinking framework. This means we work together to identify and solve our own problems. We started with the question, how might we shift from a carceral state to a culture of care? We cast our focus wider, beyond any individual people, and onto the day-to-day systems, policies, processes, and habits that entangle us.”
In addition to Warner Media, Walking the Beat Los Angeles is supported in part by the Fountain Theatre, The Vladimir & Araxia Buckhantz Foundation, David and Mary Jo Volk, Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and the 13th District, L.A. County Department of Probation, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, The Allison Thomas Racial Justice Fund, The Phillips-Gerla Family, Sharyk Overhoser, Carrie Chassin and Jochen Haber, Friars Charitable Foundation, Toby and Daniel Bernstein, and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
The Fountain Theatre is committed to theater as a change agent and to serving the community.
“In these highly charged times, nothing is more urgent than promoting better understanding between young people of color and the police who serve their communities,” notes artistic director Stephen Sachs. “Walking The Beat does just that and more. It changes lives. The powerful curriculum and methodology have been proven — through pre- and post-workshop interviews, surveys and testimonials — to produce real, on-the-ground change.”
Founded in 1990 by Sachs and Deborah Culver, the Fountain Theatre has won hundreds of awards for all areas of production, performance and design, and provides an essential voice for the citizens of Los Angeles. Dedicated to community, the Fountain produces outstanding theater that challenges thinking and shines an artistic light on the many under-represented voices and cultures within Los Angeles. Eric Garcetti joined with the Los Angeles City Council to commend the Fountain for “achieving a position of leadership in the Los Angeles theatre community… producing meaningful new plays of social and political importance that enrich the lives of the citizens of Los Angeles.” During the pandemic, the Fountain was approved by the City of L.A. to build an outdoor stage in its parking lot. As a result, it was one of the first venues to re-open in June. Currently playing on the outdoor stage is the Fountain’s critically acclaimed L.A. premiere of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which runs through Sept. 19. The theater is also presenting Forever Flamenco al fresco during the last weekends of August and September.
Established in 2016, the Elizabeth Youth Theater Ensemble’s mission is centered upon strengthening the voices of young artists. Utilizing theater-arts based curricula, EYTE provides creative learning opportunities for inner city youth that allow them to gain confidence, communication skills and self-awareness. EYTE seeks to create experiences that empower youth, developing theater as a powerful place for community
Screenings of Blackout 2021 take place on Wednesday, Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. on the Fountain Theatre’s outdoor stage. The Wednesday evening event will include special remarks and commendations by L.A. City officials. A reception will follow each of the screenings. Admission to the performances is free and open to the public(reservations necessary). The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029 (corner Fountain and Normandie). For more information and to make a reservation, call (323) 663-1525 or visit FountainTheatre.com/walking the beat.
As the Fountain Theatre continues to add public-spirited individuals to its nonprofit arts organization, it welcomes Rabbi Anne Brener to its board of directors. She is a longtime friend and supporter of the Fountain who has enjoyed many plays and special events over the years. She also currently serves on the board of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
“The Fountain Theatre begins 2021 with a large, active, dedicated board of directors who are dedicated to guiding the organization to not only survive these difficult times, but rise above them,” says Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “Rabbi Anne Brener offers wisdom, intelligence and a compassionate heart as we trek forward. Her years of experience in community building and serving others is inspirational.”
Rabbi Anne Brener, Professor of Ritual and Spiritual Development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, is the author of Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourners’ Path, now in its third edition. She is a Psychotherapist, Spiritual Director and Meditation Teacher, whose writing appears in many anthologies and periodicals. Anne co-founded one of California’s first Domestic Violence shelters and the Morei Derekh Jewish Spiritual Direction Training Program. She worked as a Hospice Chaplain and currently serves on the board of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal and Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre. Her work has been dedicated to the study of ancient Jewish rituals and practices to harvest an understanding of the universal healing wisdom that is embedded within them.
A life in the theatre is filled with photographs. We who act, direct, write, compose, design, produce or publicize theatre make use of countless of photographs, in a career and a lifetime. Production stills, headshots, publicity photos, prints for posters, snapshots for marketing brochures. We post JPEGS of ourselves in plays and musicals on social media, upload pictures of past performances for grant applications, embed digital images into our portfolios. At the Fountain Theatre, in our archive room, we have catalogued a collection of photographs chronicling the history of our organization going back thirty years. Hundreds, probably thousands, of pictures. Black and white and in color. Most of them taken by one remarkable man: Ed Krieger.
I got heartbreaking word last week that Ed had passed away at home on December 16, 2020. He had been fighting health issues for the past year and a half, but remained in good spirits. Ed was an essential member of our Fountain Family for twenty-five years, and a beloved photographer for the Los Angeles theatre community for decades. And he was my friend.
Born in Chicago, Ed graduated from Gage Park High School on the South Side. He studied biology and theater at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. In 1985, he married Heather Blades, a graduate from UC Irvine. They each performed in plays and musicals throughout Southern California, appearing on stage together in 42nd Street and The Pajama Game at Downey Civic Light Opera. They had two children, daughter Courtenay and son Will.
Whenever I gave Ed Krieger a call to shoot photos of a current production at my theatre, I was guaranteed two things. First, I knew I would get high quality stills that captured the theatrical essence and energy of our show, shot in a professional and easy-going manner. Second, I could bank on getting a flurry of theater stories from Ed, usually about the other shows he was shooting (and their companies), his own precarious exploits as a musical actor (auditions he failed, or the ones that he aced), and the blossoming careers of his kids. I loved seeing the joy spread on Ed’s face when he spoke about Courtenay and Will, he was so clearly proud of them.
The photographs of Ed Krieger have played a crucial role in the success of my theatre. For one quarter of a century, Ed pulled up in his van outside our building on Fountain Avenue, lugged his equipment into our theatre, and took millions of pictures of thousands of our theatre artists. Multiply that by fifty, by one hundred, by two hundred other theater companies throughout the Los Angeles area and you get an idea of the immense contribution this man has made to our livelihood, our business, and our art.
I imagine that of the dozens and dozens of Los Angeles theater companies who worked with Ed Krieger over the years, each and every one thought of Ed as their photographer, he was theirs. That is just how you felt about Ed. He was yours. He was like your favorite uncle, the one you loved, the one with the camera, who laughed and joked and told stories while he happily snapped photos of you and your family.
I pray that L.A. Stage Alliance reaches out to Ed’s family at the appropriate time to secure the massive archive of images Ed has captured with his camera, all now stored at his home. In those stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes, in those miles of Kodak film, on those gigabytes of imagery, lies the history of us all. The work we have done, the art we have created, the lives we have changed, the friends we have found, the families we have made, and the city we have chronicled and helped put on the national map. Ed photographed that, for us all.
At the request of the Krieger family, those wishing to honor Ed may make a donation in his name toThe Actors Fund.
I’ve been thinking about a poem by Mary Oliver. The entire poem is only two lines. That’s all it needs. It goes like this:
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
2020 has been a deep box of darkness. Our task is to learn to view sorrows as gifts. That’s a hard one. The poem encourages us to do something when sorrows come, challenges us not to sit back and do nothing about them. That is what I have learned from this year.
It is hard to receive boxes of darkness. At the bottom of my box, I have found the gift of gratitude. For things big and small. As this dreadful year comes to its close, it has brought me this gift born of darkness: To be without the intimacy of the Fountain Theatre for one year makes me grateful for it even more. I hope you feel the same. While our holiday gatherings may be smaller or grid-boxed on Zoom, our hearts will surely be filled with gratitude.
With vaccinations now underway, our boxes of darkness soon will lighten. I honestly believe that the Fountain Theatre will play an essential role in the healing of our community. As we look ahead to 2021, the Fountain has ambitious plans to move forward, both online and onstage. Creating productions that illuminate what it means to be alive at this time in the world and providing impactful arts education programs for students in underserved schools across Los Angeles. All COVID-safe.
Here’s a snapshot: Our new online platform, Fountain Stream will debut a 2021 season of plays and inter-active community programs. Using innovative video technologies, we will go beyond Zoom, to give you intimate high-quality theatre that makes you think and feel. We have expanded Fountain for Youth, our arts education initiatives, with Fountain Voices, an extraordinary in-school playwriting program designed by France-Luce Benson. Our ground-breaking cops/kids residency, Walking the Beat, will return in a glorious new digital format. And, most ambitious of all, we are hopeful that in the spring of 2021, we will launch our biggest adventure next year: a thrilling Outdoor Stage in our parking lot. Live theatre under the stars! Completely COVID-compliant. Stay tuned.
But for now, the Fountain — like every theater throughout Los Angeles and across the nation — remains closed. I don’t have to tell you things are hard. For the Fountain, our earned income has ground to a halt. The Fountain’s budget has dropped by over 50%. Our building remains non-operational, still standing proud on Fountain Avenue thanks to grants, federal loans, contributions, and the private giving by you, our Fountain Family.
If you have already made a year-end donation to our campaign, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are the gift in our darkness box. Your love, friendship and support are the light that shines the way through these uncertain times. If you haven’t yet contributed, please consider doing so. Your generous holiday gift will help make the coming year possible. I am asking you to turn the sorrows of this year into a gift of gratitude. Out of darkness, light!
It was just last month that the Fountain Theatre announced it had joined forces with playwright Larry Powell, his producing partner Angelica Robinson, and their Tell Me a Story Productions to bring Powell’s exciting 12-part tragicomedy, The Gaze…No Homo to Fountain audiences. Presented via the theatre’s new digital platform, Fountain Stream, this episodic version of Powell’s live stage play has been reinvented for the digital age.
A set of three short-form episodes has premiered each Friday for the past three weeks. Now, The Gaze…No Homo comes full circle as the final set of episodes have been released. All episodes remain available for viewing on the Fountain Stream page until Dec 31.
To recap: The Gaze…No Homo centers around a young actor, Jerome Price (Galen J. Williams), as he tries to navigate his way through the increasingly uncomfortable rehearsal process of No Homo, a new play by emerging Black queer playwright Shaun Korey (Devere Rogers.) Korey is championed by Miranda Cryer (Sharon Lawrence), the straight White interim artistic director of the esteemed Evergreen Theatre Festival (“where the brightest and boldest new American voices are watered with wisdom, fed with fodder and nurtured with nourishment.”) Cryer is also the director of the world premiere of Korey’s new play.
This year, the festival has been consigned to a digital Zoomscape instead of the traditional seats-and-stage live theatre experience thanks to the COVID pandemic. In addition to the neophyte Price, No Homo features far more seasoned actors Kendrell Thompson (Eugene Byrd) and Buddy DuPois (TC Carson), and is stage managed by the experienced team of no-nosense PSM Sherry Grosse (Yvette Cason) andgender-fluid ASM Tee (Jason “Freckle” Greene.) There is much at stake here for everyone, and complicating matters is the growing dissent between Price and Cryer. As their abrasive relationship grows ever-more heated, the fate of the entire production becomes jeopardized.
The Gaze…No Homo was selected as a finalist in the prestigious 2020/2021 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It is the first in Powell’s The Gaze cycle of plays that examines the process of building culturally specific and queer works of color in certain historically white spaces. The Gaze tackles difficult topics like racism and microagressions, and wrestles with the question, “Why strain to be free under a gaze fixed on your imprisonment, when it’s you who is holding the key?”
As we wrap up our exclusive showing of The Gaze…No Homo on the Fountain’s digital stage this month, Powell reflected back on the journey his show has taken over this past tumultuous year, and ponders the future and what he hopes it will bring.
TR: What was it like working with the Fountain Theatre this past month to present this digital reinvention of your play?
LP: If this piece can bring awareness to theatres that have been serving communities across the globe for years and who have had to close their doors due to the pandemic, I am pleased. I feel like we’ve done that at The Fountain, and that makes me proud.
TR. Would you consider another collaboration with the Fountain in the future?
LP: Of course! I would love one of my plays to be on the Fountain stage!
TR: No Homo is the first play in The Gaze cycle of plays. What is your vision for the entire cycle? How many plays are included in The Gaze? Are any of them written yet and what themes do they explore?
LP: Right now, I know there are three plays. They chart Jerome, the protagonist, as he grows older and older. I am going to start working on a new version of the second play next year. This play will focus on how we hold on to new awareness of ourselves in our art and life once we make the initial reclamation of our time and imagination. What challenges do we face? What questions do we have in that space of new consciousness?
TR: Will No Homo be presented on stage again when we return to live performances? Or will it live now as a digital presentation? What about future installments in The Gaze cycle? What form will they take?
LP: Yes. It is important to me that I continue to diversify how an audience can experience my stories. So, in every way a play can be experienced, I will lean into. A stage play, Screenplay, Teleplay, #Digiplay, Audioplay, VR play, Animated Play…. to me, it all starts with “the play.” All different structures, skill sets, and audiences but definitely all sourced in telling a story around a fire in the village.
TR. Has the success of this digital adaptation of The Gaze…No Homo encouraged you to adapt any of your previous works for digital platforms? If so, what ones?
LP: Yes and All.
TR. Was the choice of the cycle name The Gaze a conscious choice, to play on The Gays, or was it a happy coincidence?
LP: The best titles have double, triple meanings. The first play was always called “No Homo” because of the play within the play. Once I started to see the story as a cycle of works, I needed a title that spoke to a larger, more general container. The reason The Gaze sticks is because it still specifies the queer black experience as it pertains to its relationship to an oppressive gaze.
TR: You said in your Theatre Talk interview with Stephen Sachs that 2020 was a “profound year,” and you talked about “collective grief.” How have the events of 2020 shaped you as an artist? How do we, as theatre artists, as citizens, as a country, grieve our many losses this year and use them for a higher purpose?
LP: I have learned it’s important to give those loved ones, and the things we have lost, space. What I mean by that is silence and the stopping of this abusive obsession with “gotta keep going!!” Grief is a love language. We must take the time to learn it and to speak well and often. That means something different for each of us, and that’s important. We become more courageous in grief because it usually takes us to a place of surrender that opens us up to higher visions of our purpose in the world. It can, at least …if we let it. So, if you work to make firm boundaries around the space you carve out for grief … the gifts you find there are life-enhancing and heart-strengthening.
TR. What form do you prefer? Live stage or the digital small screen? Why?
LP: Well, I love the stage first. Always. That said, a story told is a story told. There are people who will run to the digital screen quicker than they would to the live stage. I want to meet both of these groups of people where they are — and I believe it is my calling to love as many forms of storytelling as possible.
TR: What’s next for you?
LP: More joy. More understanding. More peace. More love. More opportunity. More creation. More surrender. More gratitude. And always, more learning.
Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.
Settle in with your favorite beverage on Saturday, Dec. 19 at 5 p.m. PT / 8 p.m. ET when the Fountain Theatre winds up 2020 and its monthly Saturday Matinee series with an Old Hollywood-themed holiday party filled with joy, games, and — of course — an online playreading. Admission is free at fountaintheatre.com.
Venerable actress Karen Kondazian, a lifetime member of the Actors Studio and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award-winner best known for her work in the plays of Tennessee Williams (with whom she was a personal friend), takes on the role of Hollywood legend Bette Davis in Interviewing Miss Davis by award-winning playwright Laura Maria Censabella.
After the reading, stick around for party games and a celebration of friends, fellow artists and the Fountain’s all-important audience. Bring something glamorous! (optional)
Inspired by a true event in Ms. Censabella’s own life, the one-act is set in 1985 as Davis interviews a new personal assistant (Wonjung Kim) upon learning that her current, beloved assistant (and nurse) Jacqueline (Aleisha Force) is leaving.
“I was just out of college and very, very broke — no furniture, a folding chair, folding table, mattress on the floor, and I was working for someone who said I’d make a great assistant for Bette Davis,” Censabella explained in an interview. “I went to the interview but was very conflicted because I wanted to be a writer and at the same time I wanted instant validation, and I felt like if I became Bette Davis’s assistant, I would have that.”
It’s Thanksgiving week, a time to reflect on that for which we are grateful. And even within the insanity of a year that brought us a global pandemic, extreme racial unrest, and a surreal presidential election, there were still rays of light. Here at the Fountain Theatre, one of our great joys came in the form of creating a stage/screen hybrid video adaptation of Ifa Bayeza’s stunning play, The Ballad of Emmett Till. If you have not seen it, there is still time. But the streaming of this acclaimed video-on-demand production ends on December 1st, so don’t delay. Tickets are just $20 and are available here.
The Ballad of Emmett Till is a lyrical retelling of the true events that kick-started the Civil Rights movement, and blends history, mystery and legend with accents of music and poetry. The Fountain’s widely heralded, multiple award-winning 2010 west coast premiere was helmed by Shirley Jo Finney, and starred the impeccable ensemble of Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White. Actors and director reunited over the summer to create this unique VOD version of our original stage production, which is enhanced by the use of music, sound, visual imagery and various film techniques. It debuted on August 28th, which marked the 65-year anniversary of Till’s brutal murder. His death had not only become a rallying cry for the times, but it has continued to resonate, and activate civic action, across the decades that followed.
Emmett Till was a charming, precocious 14-year-old boy who lived in Chicago with his mother, Mamie. In August 1955, he traveled down south to the Mississippi Delta to visit his uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, and other family members. One sunny day he and his cousins and a few friends went into town, and the young teenager stopped at a local market to buy some sweets. Accounts differ as to what actually happened to provoke the tragedy that followed, but it is widely believed that Till, who used whistling to help control a lifelong stutter, innocently whistled at the white, married, female store clerk.
As a result, Till was later kidnapped from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night by the woman’s husband and his half-brother. The men took the boy down to the Tallahatchie River and forced him to strip. Then they beat him, shot him in the head, and weighted his body down with a heavy metal cotton gin fan that they wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. Three days later, the boy’s naked, bloated body was discovered floating in the river.
Mamie insisted that her only child’s grotesquely disfigured body be returned to her in Chicago, untouched. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she famously said, and insisted on an open casket with a glass shield to contain the stench of her son’s decomposing corpse. The media had started carrying the news of the murder, and Mamie encouraged even more attention by publically displaying the body. Mourners gathered around the clock to pay their respects. The viewing went on for four days.
It might sound odd, during this week of focused gratitude, to suggest taking these final days of opportunity to view the Fountain’s VOD production of The Ballad of Emmett Till as part of our expressions of thankfulness. I feel it is not. The joyous way he lived his short life, contrasted with the ugliness of his premature death, led to a social rebellion that’s still being waged today. We entered the summer of 2020 with streets across America being crowded with marches born of unfettered rage against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the long-shadow history of Sandra Bland, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, the nine men and women of the Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the hundreds more that came before them. Including, of course, Emmett Till.
The Ballad of Emmett Till is available through December 1st. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. I’m willing to bet you’ll be grateful you watched it.
Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.
No trick or treating this year? The Fountain’s got you covered. Please be sure to bring your kids and grandkids to this week’s show, where our guest – Lynne Streeter Childress – will perform work from her show for young people.
I met Lynne Streeter Childress many moons ago in Miami, FL when I booked my first professional acting gig. We were part of a company that toured plays for young audiences about issues like domestic violence and homelessness. While the subjects are grim, the plays were full of hope and the creative process was full of light. The latter, largely due to Lynne’s exuberance and delightful sense of humor. Decades later, Lynne has her own company, producing plays for young audiences that address issues like tolerance and empathy. I spoke to Lynne about the origins of her company (Building Better People Productions), and what it’s like to balance her creative life with motherhood in the time of Covid.
What was the genesis of Building Better People Productions? I had always wanted to do my own stuff, and I knew that it would be for young audiences, and I knew that it was going to be something about building people up. Over the years I would start, and then put things on a shelf because I was working for other people, which actually was great, because I was gaining not only a paycheck, but support, and the chance to grow. In 2015, lots of things started to come together, good and bad, that kinda pushed me forward. I lost my brother in law, which was the 4th in a series of family losses. I had also started writing a piece about empathy that I planned to produce on my own somehow, and when the opportunity to perform part of it for a festival didn’t work out, that seemed like an open door to just do the thing for real. I was in the place to just move forward.
How will future productions address the moment we are in as a Nation? How do you tackle such complicated conversations? It’s made me want to continue to not run away from addressing hurt. Most of the shows that we have done have hard moments, where people are bullied, and lose family members, and have anxiety, and are treated bad because of differences. There is always a moment in rehearsal where I think “Is this too much?” And no, it’s not. Kids are smart. And I think that we insult them when we DON’T tackle things they are going through or that are going on around them. There has to be something between hitting them over the head and completely ignoring where we are with the isolation of COVID, and the sadness of where we are racially. I owe it to my kid, and all kids, to figure out how to do that respectfully. One more thing: we have always had a pretty diverse group of people that we work with, but I am committed to truly seeking out more people. I also want to do a show that is about a little black girl loving life. I needed to see more of that when I was a little kid, and now I want to do that. For little black girls and for everyone, to normalize that little black girls can just have joy.
You say that the adaptation of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” you performed in is your most favorite show you’ve ever done. Why? What made it so special? It was my first Equity show (although I am not a part of the union now currently), and I participated in a development reading of it, I was part of the original cast of the show, and in the first tour. I am on the cover of the script as a koala! It is the show that made me feel like I was really doing this, and I got to be at the Kennedy Center every day, which is the most beautiful space. I got to see something come off of the page, see it worked in the room with the playwright and composer in rehearsals. And it took me around the country, getting paid to perform and travel. It helped make me. Also, I think that I may have named my son after that show. It was years later, and the name Alexander came to me as a front runner, and I didn’t know why. It just felt right. When my son was a baby I was at a party for a friend, who had directed that first production of “Alexander”, and Judith Viorst,the writer of the show, was there, and I had not seen her in a while. She asked what my son’s name was; when I said “Alexander”, everyone started laughing. And I said, “WAIT! Did I name him for the show?” And maybe I did. It was in there somewhere.
You have a twin sister who also writes? Did you grow up writing together? Will you or have you ever collaborated? My sister is amazing. AMAZING. She has been a journalist for 27 years, and has won awards, and wrote a memoir that came out earlier this year called “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title”, about losing her husband. We used to make up stories as little kids, and actually blogged together about our experiences in our 40s for a while. I produced and perform in a holiday play that she wrote, The Gift of the Mad Guy, about generosity, that Building Better People has performed yearly since 2016. I love saying her words, and I love sending her royalty checks.
Did becoming a Mom change you as an artist? If so, how? Yep. It’s made me want to make a world that he sees as lovely and that sees him as lovely. The third part of “We Got It” was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and I was pregnant when Trayvon was murdered, and I felt the weight of how some people did not value the lives of young black men, and did not see their deaths as tragedies. That wrecked me for their parents, and I was about to BE a parent of a young black man, and me yelling on Facebook, while cathartic, wasn’t going to be enough. What I knew how to do was create. So, I wrote. My son has also inspired shows that I have written or that we have performed, that are things I want him to hear, like about keeping his imagination, and knowing his worth.
How will you make Halloween special for an 8-year-old in the middle of a Pandemic? Our plan is to have my sister and nephew and mom over (they are in our Covid circle), and we will wear costumes and eat candy. That’s a good plan. Family and sugar.
What’s been keeping you sane? God, and the idea that if we are in this place, then there has to be a way to work in it. If we are still here, when other people aren’t, there is something to do in it, even if that’s just to be grateful for being here. I have also learned a lot of grace for others because we are all struggling.
What gives you hope? That people are still creating and finding ways to be light for themselves, and then for other people. Seeing creative output gives me LIFE.