You’re in a Zoom gathering when a young black man named Keishon pops onto your screen.
“Ay yo, what’s good everybody?” he says. People in adjoining boxes wave.
However ingratiating he may be, Keishon — actually the actor Marlon Burnley — has a harrowing story to tell. After both his parents died, he spent age 7 to 18 in foster care, abused by both adults and children but mostly by the system itself. The agency in charge of his placements stole his survivor benefits, he says, leaving him broke when it spit him out at the end: “Apparently, the state’s budget is so thin that they’re using low-income kids’ tragedies to fill their general reserves.”
People don’t usually talk public policy like that in the theater, but maybe they should. At any rate, that’s the idea behind Equitable Dinners, a series of monthly events, produced by Out of Hand Theater in Atlanta, that sees plays not as aesthetic objects but as prompts for reflection on aspects of racial inequity in America.
Keishon’s 10-minute monologue — “Child Sacrifices on the Altar of Uncle Sam” by Avery Sharpe — was part of a “dinner” I attended on Sunday that was devoted to the theme of economic discrimination. The format, which originated offline as the Decatur Dinners and involved real meals until the Covid-19 pandemic intervened, has been adapted somewhat for online realities.
It still involves the same five elements: a welcome, a short play commissioned for the occasion, a talk from an expert on the evening’s subject, small group discussions led by facilitators and, finally, a call to action. But the play is now a livestream, and those discussions, which formerly took place over potluck at individual tables, are held in Zoom breakout rooms with five to 10 participants each.
As a vehicle for what we traditionally think of as theatrical engagement, the new medium is a mixed blessing. Though the 250 people who attended Sunday’s dinner were not in the same actual space as Burnley, and could not make themselves known to him or he to them the way actors and audiences can in a theater, that distancing was a powerful reflection of reality. Keishon’s story, alive beside us, was the kind that too often remains difficult to touch — as I’d learn later in the evening.
On the other hand, an expert talk delivered online with PowerPoint slides, like the one given on Sunday by Daniel L. Hatcher, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, inevitably calls to mind the remote grind of classrooms, even if what is taught is eye-opening.
In this case, it was, at least to me: Hatcher’s book “The Poverty Industry” explores the many ways in which grants to social service agencies create a perverse disincentive to providing actual service. On Sunday, matching the theme of Sharpe’s play, for which he served as an adviser, Hatcher focused his 20 minutes on foster care, a system in which black children are heavily overrepresented. But the same funding schemes also underlie programs that turn the life span of what Hatcher calls “vulnerable citizens” — whether in schools, prisons or nursing homes — into government income streams.
Important information, certainly, but hardly as dramatic as Keishon’s monologue. The language of explanation is different from the language of empathy. It was the facilitator of my breakout group, the epidemiologist Camara Jones, who pointed out that phrases like “vulnerable citizens,” and the discussions of poverty and capitalism that had started our conversation, avoid the obvious point, which is racism. She asked each of us to reflect on why that word, which lies at the root of the other problems, can be so difficult to face.
And that’s when the evening’s real drama began, as nine people diverse by age, race, gender and geography, seated in kitchens and living rooms around Atlanta and around the country, singly or in pairs, tried to clear a way through shyness and uncertainty to approach some fundamentals. Among the ideas proposed: Racism is a system, not an individual moral failing. Police violence is an expression, not an aberration, of that system.
Indeed, it was not lost on anyone attending the Equitable Dinner on Sunday that these conversations were occurring in the midst of two existential threats to people of color. One was the virus, but the other was man-made. Not 48 hours earlier, as protests over the killing of George Floyd continued, another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot to death by a white policeman in a Wendy’s parking lot in South Atlanta, five miles from Out of Hand’s office. No surprise that the mood in my breakout group was often heavy and hopeless.
Theater has likewise been facing two threats, one preventing plays from being staged, one making too many of them seem trivial. Out of Hand’s project — produced with social justice organizations including The King Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and sponsored by locally headquartered philanthropies including the Coca-Cola Foundation — points to a possible solution to both problems.
For one thing, its repurposing of meeting software as a dramatic tool, too often a mere expedience in streamed theatrical presentations, is utterly convincing here, in part because it acknowledges the fact that we are really in a meeting. And the subject matter, which over the next three months will examine education, housing and voting rights, could not possibly be more pressing. To spend two hours engaged in a public discussion of what many of us are thinking about all day anyway is to create a momentary equilibrium between ourselves and our world.
If there is a limitation in the Equitable Dinner model it is the limitation of theater itself: It can substitute symbolic action for the real thing. To see a dramatization of racism, even with a discussion and action items to follow, is not to fight against it. Being willing to listen to a story like Keishon’s in a dramatic monologue is not the same as being willing to listen to it in real life, Camara Jones pointed out.
“Does it really take a play to care?” she asked.
The justification for theater in a tragic world is that by representing tragedy safely it trains us in sympathy that can result in change. But if we’re honest we know that theater, like all art, can also glut us, rendering us useless in the world it hopes to repair. The Covid pause and Black Lives Matter are making that clear. When the drama is all on the street, behind masks, why bother imagining it onstage?
And yet consolation is also a valuable role of theater. Out of Hand seemed to recognize that on Sunday, consigning the call to action that usually ends its programs to a webpage and email.
Instead, Jericho Brown, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, popped up on the screen to read three poems and end the evening. “I’d like us to rethink/What it is to be a nation,” was a key line in one, and in that moment you could hear, from several of Zoom’s discrete black-rimmed boxes, the unmistakable sound of crying.