Just two days before the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) released its report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” I sat in the audience at JACK in Brooklyn for a reading of the play Aftermath, written in 1919 by playwright Mary P. Burrill. Directed by Courtney Harge of the Colloquy Collective, the reading marked the first in a series highlighting black-authored anti-lynching plays that is running at JACK through June as part of its Forward Ferguson series, focused on artistic work tied to racial justice movements past and present.
After reading about the series and focusing on the description “anti-lynching,” I went to the theater anticipating didactic work. I assumed the historic play would focus on swaying white audiences to recognize the humanity of black individuals and challenging the systems of power that supported the violent suppression and murder of black people throughout the US. As the EJI report notes: “For more than six decades, as Southern whites used lynching to enforce a post-slavery system of racial dominance, white officials outside the South watched and did little.”
The term “anti-lynching” made me focus on questions of audience because it wasn’t people of color doing the lynching, it was whites. And as a New York Times op-ed responding to the EJI report noted, while blacks made up the majority of those being lynched, an array of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Mexicans and Mexican Americans, were also regular targets. The people who needed to be stopped were whites, and so I assumed that these “anti-lynching” plays would be targeted at influencing their hearts and minds. But after hearing Burrill’s words read aloud by the company, and sticking around for the discussion that took place between the actors, the director, and the audience, it became clear that the assumptions I brought to the reading didn’t do justice to the complexities of the work.
Aftermath is a short play, only about 25 minutes long, and its story concerns a black family in the South, the patriarch of which has recently been lynched. Not long after his murder, the eldest son unexpectedly returns home from having fought in World War I, where he earned medals for his bravery. While his sister, mother, and younger brother decide to hold off telling the son about his father’s death, a neighbor stops and lets the tragic news slip. Enraged by the hypocrisy of a country that lauds him for fighting unjust powers overseas but stands by as his father is murdered for the color of his skin at home, the son grabs a gun, places another in the hand of his younger brother, and walks out of the house to a fate unknown as the brief tale ends.
It is a tight, well-crafted play that also manages to twist the form by not setting up traditional protagonist/antagonist relationships, as director Courtney Harge pointed out. Rather than being in direct conflict with one another, as is typically the case in theater, the characters are grappling with survival in the midst of external conflicts that are not of their making.
Who was this play written for? Who saw it? And what did it inspire in its audiences? Those were among the questions that came up in the discussion after the reading, and Harge, along with the cast, offered many insights. Harge suggested that the play, being so short, was likely first performed in churches with black congregations. Later, in 1928, it was produced by the Harlem-based Krigwa Players in New York City. Harge also reminded the audience that at base the play is a work of art, a response to the world in which Burrill lived and a recognition of the human struggle to cope in the face of constant threats of random and unprovoked violence.
What became clear through the discussion was that the play operates on many different levels at once. A culture of racist violence is the setting in which Burrill seeks to recognize and explore the human condition. As Harge and the cast discussed, they saw the characters as representing a variety of coping mechanisms: From the youngest son, who believes that walking hours out of his way will protect him (perhaps a reference to respectability politics); to the elderly mother, who relies on a mix of mysticism and religion; to keeping your head down; to violent rebellion.
Another question that came up in the discussion was why so many of the writers of these plays were women. Lauren Lattimore, who played the daughter Milly in the reading, offered a number of insights on this question, pointing out that women were often the survivors of these acts of violence (though women were also lynched in the US) and the ones who were forced to “maintain and manage” their families in the wake and in the midst of them.
At a time when a new racial justice movement is clearly underway, with new issues, goals, and demands of its own, it was powerful to reflect on the role that art plays in that setting. It was a welcome reminder that art serves not simply as an instrumental device capable of rallying support for a cause, but also as a means of expression and an opportunity for recognition and discussion among those who are most affected by the injustices being fought.
Colloquy Collective will lead four more readings through June 7 as part of the Forward Ferguson series at JACK (505 1/2 Waverly Ave, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn). The next one will be Corrie Crandall Howell’s The Forfeit (1925) on Sunday, March 8. Dr. Koritha Mitchell, professor and author of Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930, will be present for the reading and discussion on May 17.