In “Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied,” local African Americans work with LA-based director — and Black Lives Matter co-founder — Patrisse Khan-Cullors to tell stories about traumatic encounters with law enforcement.
Every rehearsal for “Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied” begins with dinner.
Three days before opening night, the “Power” cast and crew sat around a table in a first-floor room at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, joking between bites of macaroni, chicken and greens from Angel City Deli while discussing the stories — about traumatic experiences with law enforcement — they were about to share onstage.
The nine storytellers are not professional actors: Hodan Hassan is an organizer with environmental-justice nonprofit Got Green?, Marcel Baugh is a legislative assistant for state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, Karen “KT” Taylor is an activist and organizer who said she spent much of her youth “stuck in the school-jail pipeline.”
‘Power: From the Mouthsof the Occupied’
Oct. 20-22, presented by Intiman Theatre at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; suggested donation $5-$40 (206-684-4757 or intiman.org).
What they have in common: They’re black, they’ve been treated like criminals at some point in their lives and they’re going to tell their stories in public — some for the first time.
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Director Patrisse Khan-Cullors — a Los Angeles-based theater artist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement — is taking the “Power” project from city to city, finding local people willing to tell their stories, and shaping them into theater. (In Seattle, she worked with Intiman Theatre and artist C. Davida Ingram to find likely participants; next, “Power” is headed to Ohio and South Africa.)
“These are such common experiences,” Cullors said, “but it’s surprising how little it’s talked about — how many people have never told their stories, or didn’t think they were worth telling.”
“Power” got started while Cullors was an artist-in-residence at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College in 2014, the same year Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. In the aftermath, Cullors kept hearing stories from activists and artists about their negative encounters with police: “I thought, ‘I want to put these stories onstage. I want a snapshot of this moment.’ It’s very important that these are not political speeches about racism, but asking people to share that moment when they experienced humiliation and fear.”
Cullors said that wherever she stages “Power,” the stories are remarkably — disappointingly — similar.
Their themes cut across generations as well. Just before the run-through, Taylor, 52, sat in a chair wearing a black T-shirt with a copper-colored U.S. flag printed on the front. The stars were stars; the stripes were chains. She gestured at 16-year-old Faisal Provincial. “My and his stories are a lot similar. When he tells his story, I live it — because I lived it.”
While people finished their dinners Monday, Cullors called the table to attention, asking how they were feeling and what the word “power” meant to them that day. “Today, to me,” she said, “ ‘power’ means the power to be vulnerable.”
The performers took turns — describing power as “peace of mind,” “without shame,” “healing,” “persistence” — before heading into the theater for a run-through.
Cullors said she encourages the performers to “not act,” but simply tell stories. Luzviminda Uzuri “Lulu” Carpenter tried to make a U-turn in Everett, got stuck on a highway median, and worried that she and her friend were “going to die that day” when an angry responding officer flashed her gun.
Hassan talked about a humiliating airport-security experience when guards pulled her away from a school group, told her to take off some of her clothes, and rifled under her hijab. Baugh said he came out of a Starbucks wearing a “Don’t Shoot/Black Lives Matter” T-shirt during a march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was pepper sprayed and arrested.
Throughout the rehearsal, one theme kept popping up: the unspoken slur. Jah-Vi Cotten-Cohia, for example, talked about feeling — if not exactly hearing — the word “boy” punctuate an officer’s questions about what he was up to one night.
After the run-through, some performers wiped away tears and asked if there would be tissues during the show. Cullors said yes, but recommended everybody bring a handkerchief.
“You can feel as angry, as hurt, as upset and pissed-off as you want,” she said. “This is your story. This is what happened to you.”