Though it’s difficult for me to properly relate to the sort of life experience that informs it, I was struck deeply by Makambe K. Simamba’s Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers. And I’m still processing her meditation on the collective grief and anger of the Black community in the face of senseless slaughter. Presented by bcurrent at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, her play takes us on a journey to the afterlife with Trayvon Martin.
Calling himself Slimm, Trayvon takes us into his confidence as he discovers an ancient tome that holds instructions on connecting to his ancestors. This involves reliving the awful encounter with his killer, the events leading up to it, and making peace with the loved ones he’s left behind.
It’s just Simamba alone on stage before a huge screen where her words and actions are echoed with projected text and reflective imagery. In a hoody and jeans, Simamba captures his endearingly awkward teenage swagger as he goofs around with his friends and tries to impress the girl he likes. Even the playful chatter of youth feel weighty and precious here because they are life and we know how brutally soon it will end.
While there is little in the way of scenery or props, their inclusion is striking and resonant. The glowing book that leads Slimm through the afterlife has a magical, majestic presence. But the real gut-punch comes from a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. As commonplace as these items are, in this context they carry such tragic weight.
For me, the most telling aspect of Simamba’s commitment here is her refusal to let herself or the audience treat the burden of loss lightly. There is an extended sequence in which Slimm recites the names of murdered Black men and boys. It would have been too easy to call out a few and call it a day, but she takes her time with the people who have been lost and the sequence lasts a long while. It’s easy to overlook the significance of this choice. There is a relative ease to learning dialogue because of the logic and rhythms of character and situation, but the hard, inexpressive bulk of names and dates cannot be internalized so easily. Simamba has put in the work to learn all those names, ages and dates. Because it is important to her. Because it is important that we hear and take the time to bear proper witness.
Particularly disheartening is a scene in which Trayvon’s mother urgently drills into her children the protocol for handling any interaction with police. Stay calm. Be polite. Call them sir. On the surface, this seems like pretty standard etiquette, but it’s far more dehumanizing. This isn’t about showing respect and courtesy to a fellow human being, it’s about diminishing yourself, reducing the space of your existence, for the sake of survival. It is shameful that our society has created an environment in which such time and mental energy be spent on teaching Black children non-being in the face of white authority. This scene’s potency lies in how accurately it captures the reality of how normalized this has become.
While it took some time to fully invest in the performance, it had an intense cumulative effect upon me. There was point—I think it was those damn Skittles—where I was struck by the weight of loss represented here. And the finale, which takes us on a voiceless journey through Trayvon’s potential life, was both uplifting and heartbreaking.
It is a performance from which you must take the time to recover. And, in recovering, reflect on the fact that it pays tribute to events from which recovery is tough. Simamba’s work here is a valuable part of the healing process. But more importantly, it is a call to action for us—as individuals and a society—to do better.
Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers ran April 11 – 19, 2019
at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.)
See bcurrent website for details