by Orissa Arend
The Other Black History, playing at the Ashe Power House, 1731 Baronne St. this Friday and Saturday June 21 and 22 at 7 PM, is an engaging, witty, rapid-fire, informative play written by Flint D. Mitchell, Ph.D. and directed by John Grimsley. It showcases our enormous local talent. Mr. Oliver, played by Oliver Thomas, is a formerly incarcerated school teacher, monitoring detention for four teenagers who are surly, curious, know-it-all, and rambunctious, with attitudes that will ring true across generations. Mr. Oliver decides to use his platform to teach the kids lessons about the real Black history. How is that for art imitating life? (Learn more about Oliver Thomas if you don’t get that reference.)
The kids are wonderful and seem to be channeling the energy and frustration of their generation more than acting. Kiya Henderson is a 17-year-old graduate from Lusher Charter High School who has been acting since she was 7. She will attend Pomona College in Claremont, CA this Fall. Wynton Eli Jones is an 18-year-old graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School. Acting since the age of 6, he’ll attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and will study Theater. Hilary Vaucresson is just 13, an 8th grader at Cabrini High School and very excited to be in her first play. Justice Smith, a 16-year-old Sophomore at Holy Cross High School, is grateful to his parents, family, and friends for their unconditional love and support. He wants to perform on Broadway.
Mr. Oliver’s history lesson begins with the transatlantic slave trade and ends with the modern Civil Rights Movement. Playwright Mitchell knew that convincing schools, school districts, and government to teach what is true to their students and citizens would be impossible. His play, then, is his attempt to educate everyone about some basic and controversial American concepts. He counts on art, unlike the text book, to resist censorship and revision. He also counts on the play to take the “Black Facts” succinctly compiled in a little book Mr. Oliver carries with him, and bring them into the lived experience of these young people under his charge. Why? So that they will have the courage and the drive to carry on the Civil Rights Movement which is far from complete.
The most unsettling question came in the talk back from a boy in the audience who looked to be about 10. What is the reason for slavery? Is it laziness, meanness, economic necessity on the part of the owner (a term Oliver Thomas points out that should be used instead of “master”). Each panelist had her or his own answer but they boiled down to greed and the tendency to rationalize anything in the name of profit. These are the kinds of questions, avoided by people of all races, because they are so uncomfortable, that the play invites. They are also the kinds of questions, the playwright points out, that can get you fired from a job or set you at odds with people in your inner circle.
Pastor Gregory Manning of Broadmoor Community Church and co-moderator of Justice and Beyond attended the play with me. He said, “I’m encouraging young people to pack the audience for the next performances. They are our hope for the future.”