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GREENSBORO, North Carolina — On November 3, 1979, five anti-Klan marchers were killed in Greensboro, North Carolina, in what is known as the Greensboro Massacre. Playwright Emily Mann’s Greensboro: A Requiem focuses on the massacre, in which members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party opened fire on marchers in a “Death to the Klan” rally, killing five and critically wounding others. The attack took place on a sunny Saturday morning near Morningside Homes, a low-income housing project. An upcoming weekend of events commemorating the 40th anniversary will include a community reading of Mann’s play.
Mann has embraced activism from her earliest plays about the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the murder of Harvey Milk. Her plays hew closely to the documentary evidence, thereby informing audiences of the facts even as the deeper recesses of human behavior are explored. The story of the Greensboro Massacre is complex, and evidence emerged over many years during one civil and two criminal trials. Mann constructs her drama on the basis of these facts, as well as her own investigative interviews.
In the play, the “Interviewer,” a stand-in for Mann herself, wonders why she had not known about the massacre. She’s given the often-heard explanation that the very next day the 444-day Iran hostage crisis began, and that dominated the news. But it’s also the case, as Mann makes abundantly clear, that the massacre was brushed aside because white supremacists had a history of killing with impunity for years. As Greensboro: A Requiem begins, overlapping voices are heard: “For a hundred years the Klan has beaten / murdered and raped. / They have shot and lynched thousands of Black people / tarred and feathered Black and White union organizers / ridden in the night shooting into people’s homes.”
The Greensboro Massacre fits into an unspoken tradition of state-sanctioned violence. Prior to the march, the Greensboro police had supplied information to the Klan and had purposefully stayed away on a long “lunch break” until after the attack. At least one member of the FBI was aware of the Klan gathering arms in advance of the march and did not intervene. Indirectly, the local community is implicated, as many sympathized with the Klan and American Nazi members, and considered the organizers of the march to be outside agitators. The march was led by members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), later renamed the Communist Workers Party (CWP). Greensboro was a segregated city, and the WVO/CWP was stirring up the status quo, not only in their “Death to the Klan” rally, but also in their work organizing local Black textile workers.
The Greensboro Massacre continues to divide the city. Letters to the editor suggest just forgetting it and moving on, the better to present the city as good for business. Others consider critical to the healing process the apology made by the City Council, the explicit language contained in historical and grave markers, and a new decision to include the Greensboro Massacre in the city’s International Civil Rights Center & Museum. All of this makes a community gathering to read Greensboro: A Requiem on the 40th anniversary of the event especially significant.
“My experience growing up in Greensboro was that most people don’t even know the story of the Greensboro Massacre,” said César Alvarez last year in an unpublished interview about the play. Alvarez, a New York-based composer, lyricist, and creator of participatory musicals, was born in Greensboro the year after the Massacre and is named for two of the victims, who were friends of their parents. As a teenager in 1996, Alvarez came with friends and family from Greensboro to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, to see the world premiere of Greensboro: A Requiem. Onstage, Alvarez saw actors playing the parts of people they knew. Alvarez says this “out of body experience” has had a long-lasting influence on their own combination of art-making and social activism.
“I think that knowledge is power,” Mann said in an interview for the Jersey Arts Podcast this past September. “And I have found that when you tell the whole story and you reach people, that can affect some people and can change them.” Mann is the Artistic Director and Resident Playwright at the McCarter Theatre where, along with Alvarez and others from the survivors’ community, the mayor of Greensboro was in the audience for the premiere in 1996. The mayor “hadn’t known the full story. And she went back to Greensboro and worked with the survivors and they had the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission ever in America.”
Sharing her plays in non-traditional settings is part of Mann’s activism. Community readings, for instance, involve non-actors reading the play’s parts, usually in a circle. The theatrical experience is entirely different than seeing a professionally produced play on stage, and it can be transformative. “It’s hard to describe how meaningful a community reading of any kind is,” said Paula Alekson, the McCarter Theatre’s Artistic Engagement Manager in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “And to do it in a political climate where the same issues keep coming up again and again is even more so.”
Mann calls Greensboro: A Requiem a documentary because the language in the play is transcribed verbatim from her interviews with members of the WVO/CWP, the Klan’s police informant, and other eyewitnesses to the event. Community readings engage participants on a visceral level as they speak the actual words of the protagonists, the bystanders, and the victims. Because of this, the goal is to have as many readers as possible. While a typical production of Greensboro: A Requiem calls for 11 actors, the upcoming reading in Greensboro will have 58 parts. Others will join in the chorus, singing and speaking the words to songs and chants.
Alvarez, who is currently a 2018–2020 Arts Fellow at Princeton University, was invited to a community reading of Greensboro: A Requiem last year at the McCarter Theatre. In an interview after the reading, they commented that “It felt like such an incredible version of the play — because the play is about a community coming together to deal with something really, really hard that happened, which is the Klu Klux Klan murdering five of your friends in broad daylight.” Alvarez worked with Alekson and Mann to bring this experience home to Greensboro.
As an artistic director, Emily Mann has presented a diversity of experience onstage. She gave Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) early creative and financial support through the McCarter’s LAB program, and co-produced his Brother/Sister Plays with the Public Theater. Mann has worked repeatedly with the anti-apartheid South African playwright Athol Fugard, and many others. From the beginning of her career, she has used the power of theater to transcend personal experience by allowing us to share deeply in the worlds of others. In all of her roles, she mines people’s words for their justifications, motivations, regrets, and memories, leaving us all to grapple with what she finds.
Greensboro Massacre: Lessons for Today, a nationwide commemoration of the 40th anniversary, includes a weekend of events in Greensboro, November 1-3. The community reading of Emily Mann’s play Greensboro: A Requiem is open to all and will be held in the Auditorium of the Academic Classroom Building at North Carolina A&T State University on Friday, November 1 at 6 pm. An Intergenerational Dialogue will follow.
Greensboro: A Requiem is published in Testimonies: Four Plays by Emily Mann, published by Theatre Communications Group, 1996.