We were in class, Monday night. I’m halfway through my second subject on The Imagination.
We were gathered around a tiny projector, linked to our teacher’s iPad, with two disposable water bottles as speakers. It was dark and strangely cosy, tucked in a little room refurbished from the 1920s, oblivious to the craze below on Hollywood Boulevard.
We were watching two filmed examples from a play called ‘Fences’, by August Wilson.
At the beginning of the scene, a young man, stricken, comes to his father:
CORY: Can I ask you a question? … How come you ain’t never liked me?
In separate professional productions, two pairs of actors performed the same roles in the same scene so vastly differently, that the context and gravity were basically presented as opposites.
One was a tragedy, the other a farce.
The performances were primarily driven by the elder actor, ‘Troy’, in each of the examples. Our teacher pointed out the key difference:
Only the first actor understands how big the idea of this play is, and addresses its depth.
We have been learning to give weight where weight is due. Understand when something is beyond us, as actors. Rise to it, and honour it, rather than drag it down to our level of ignorance or inexperience. Seek out deeper understanding, so we can access and present greater truth.
The tragedy of the first scene sat as truth.
As we moved on, about to watch more work, someone from the office stepped in and turned on the light, cracking our cinematic illusion.
They’ve let off Darren Wilson. The protests are trying to take over the 10, and are heading for Hollywood Boulevard.
You should all go home.
In about thirty seconds, everyone had stood, gathered their bags and left, as if it was an evacuation. At first I didn’t understand why things were considered so dangerous. We have protests at home. Usually they’re our Greens supporters peacefully giving our prime minister the finger.
But this is Los Angeles. And this was the Ferguson trial.
Michael Brown was an 18 year old African-American man from Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot in a veiled altercation with white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. The Ferguson community is majority-black, with a majority-white city government and police, and there are long-standing racial tensions.
After Brown’s death, and the report that he was apparently surrendering, there were impassioned protests nation-wide against discriminatory violence. Wilson was investigated, the evidence given to a grand jury, and on Monday it was announced that he was not going to be charged.
The Los Angeles protests in response were ambitious but not violent. I caught the train to avoid the roads. We didn’t see or hear anything. There seemed to be a strange ache over the city as I passed through it – I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it. Was I trying to participate in a grief I couldn’t possibly comprehend?
Later that night, I couldn’t get the image of Courtney B. Vance’s ‘Cory’ standing before his father, out of my head. Humiliated and intimidated, the teenage boy with tears in his eyes, trying desperately to hold them back.
How come you ain’t never liked me?
You see, ‘Fences’ is a fiercely African American play.
I read it a long time ago, as part of an anthology of post-colonial plays I had as a textbook. I didn’t understand it, at the time. It had strange slang, references I couldn’t place. I did, however, understand the discrimination. ‘Fences’, through its dissection of family, betrayal and broken dreams, speaks loudly about race relations in America in the 1950s. It is proud and empowered, but full of pain.
I am not American. I am not a person of colour. I cannot access this issue deeply, from either perspective. I cannot write about race relations, and I won’t.
But when someone who can decides to get up and speak – whether from a burning street, or a Broadway stage – I will listen.
We must seek out deeper understanding, so we can access and present greater truth.
Rest in Peace, Michael Brown.
Alright… Mr. Death. See now…I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna do.
I’m gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me.
And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you’re ready for me.
Then you come on. Bring your army. Bring your sickle. Bring your wrestling clothes.
(‘Fences’ by August Wilson, 1987)