You can’t get much more “ripped from the headlines” than Fresno State’s new production of “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments.” As director Thomas-Whit Ellis and his cast were heading into the final week before opening, the nation was rattled again by police violence in black communities in Tulsa and Charlotte. With the play’s corresponding themes, you can’t get much more socially relevant than that.
I caught up with Ellis via email to talk about the show.
Q: How did this play come about in terms of genesis, first production, etc.? What was the timeline in you picking it for the season?
A: Exactly as was the case last year, this was one of a few alternative titles I pitched after my first show was rejected by the department. Hence, I was looking for something topical, controversial and hard hitting. I put the word out to some colleagues around the country and “Hands Up” was suggested.
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It accommodates a lot of logistical needs that my department sometimes looks for in terms of less demand on technical aspects. This is a trend I’ve actually been doing over that last few years: minimalist, high energy, hard hitting takes on African American Dramatic Literature.
Q: As I write this, we’re looking at two major police shootings just in the past week. What has it been like working on a play in which real-life events relevant to the theme are occurring even as you rehearse? Is it almost too raw?
A: So many issues related to this. First, it’s hugely relevant to our Black student body and the community at large. It’s rare to find a show that hits these two marks at once. Usually, my shows skew one way or the other. Second, I knew several months ago, the issues of excessive force and the gap in black/white pubic discourse were certainly going to continue. It entirely predictable given the media coverage and third party documentation of these events. Third, I wasn’t counting on this side issue with Colin Kaepernick to explode. In fact, I had entirely given up on African American Ballers to take such an important and anachronistic position on the Black Lives Matter thing. I totally missed that but it adds to the discourse.
Q: We don’t have to summarize each of the seven vignettes, but could you give us the gist of two or three?
A: Well, first, another reason I chose this show is that matters of excessive force and innocent, unarmed people continuing to be slain, this topic serves as a backdrop to other issues in the black community not fully discussed or addressed. Such as domestic violence, the exploration of bi-racial and blended family interaction, race vs the LGBT movement and more.
So, no, I don’t have a favorite movement in the show, it’s all equally challenging and hopefully rewarding at the end of the day.
Q: What sort of insights have you and your cast had during rehearsal?
A: The predictable anger, catharsis, channeling the negative through artistic expression, etc. On a related note, I recently took a scene to a community center that provides services for seniors on the West Side (predominately black) and their responses were very explosive. This population was very much vocal about their kids and grandkids remaining in harm’s way. And they also provided a historical context to the recent spate of police brutality with regard to their growing up in the south and facing southern like racism in the valley. Clearly an unintended eye opener.
Q: What role do you think theater (and this play) can take in our society’s crucial discussion about this subject?
A: It continues the dialogue. Albeit, mostly as preaching to the choir. But it is one way of keeping the conversation alive. It’s like addressing some sort of health crisis whereby medical officials try to partner with social and civic organizations to help keep awareness and education in the forefront of the public’s attention. If the same message is presented through schools, churches, social media the society has a better chance of abating the crisis. In this case however, most of the dialogue regarding Black Lives Matter is most pertinent to the black community and liberal white audiences that are already frustrated with the lack of movement towards solutions. However, I’m not whining about any paucity of conservatives who will attend this show. I’m fairly certain their mindset will remain pretty much unmoved. Which is OK. This effort is just one of many moving parts designed to chisel down the kind of hostility and xenophobia that reinforces and fosters the problem in the first place.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: This play is written as seven mini solo shows. I pretty much broke all the scenes up so it plays more like a true ensemble piece with all the actors helping to tell all the individual stories. By doing so it looks as though it was written in this fashion much like “Colored Girls...” This provides a better experience for my actors, most of whom don’t have the experience to pull this off the way it was originally conceived. Also, it makes it easier to move people around in the event of our losing an actor, as was the case with this show. With all the lines more evenly distributed, the absorption of an individual’s part was easier to work. As opposed to one actor taking on a very lengthy monologue at the last minute.