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Post-Ferguson Tensions Explored in Two New Plays

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Big Momma’s Back Porch Theatre, 217 E. Commercial St., presents two original dramas, directed by local theatre professional and OTC Theatre program head Jon Herbert, and will feature local actors—including Herbert himself. The evening will begin with local playwright Bill Mumford’s play "Writer’s Block," featuring Ellaun Williams and Jon Herbert.  Mumford is one of Herbert’s students at OTC. A retired firefighter from Chicago (at possibly the only all-African-American firehouse in the city), “he came to OTC to study electronic media production,” says Jon Herbert. “He ended up taking my Playwriting class, and this is one of the first plays he’s written. When he turned in his first draft, I just thought, ‘Oh my gos, we have to do this play!’” 

In “Writer’s Block,” a man attempts to talk his son out of joining a protest at "‘ground zero U.S.A.,’ the current hotbed of racial tension sparked by the murder of a young black man by the police."  "Writer's Block" is rich with dynamic characterization and conflict. It is a serious drama, but is has many light moments and a message that resonates. Despite its 15-minute run time, Jon Herbert says “these characters go to a lot of places.  There is a lot between this father and son that is uncovered.”

"Rights of Passage" is the second play of the evening, written by Kansas City playwright Michelle T. Johnson and featuring local actors Jonova Robinson, Jordan Thomas, and Anthony Weaver.  According to Jon Herbert, “Michelle Johnson is a former attorney, now a diversity specialist and a playwright. This is the first fully-staged production of this play—this is the world premiere.  It’s had some readings and has met with some success in Kansas City.”

It concerns a white police officer who has shot to death an unarmed black teenager. Worried that the family will pursue legal action against him, he seeks consultation from a law firm.  But he’s surprised to discover that the paralegal who is sitting in on his interview with the attorney is a black female. “He’s uncomfortable with that,” says director Jon Herbert.  Jonova Robinson plays Pat, the paralegal.  She feels Pat “is seeking some justice, some closure for what has happened. But she wants to be open-minded about the situation and not just assume things”—to see if her feelings about the cop are justified, to determine to what extent the incident was really racially motivated.

As for Victor, the policeman, actor Anthony Weaver notes that while the teenager’s parents have not threatened to sue him, but “he fears that possibility;” hence his consultation with the lawyer.  But this attorney is “sort of the comic relief” in the show, according to Jon Herbert.  “He’s a pretty unorthodox attorney... it’s a little bit ambiguous as to whether he’s going to be an ally for Victor. 

"Rights of Passage" is a fast-paced, entertaining, and ultimately very serious and poignant drama about the subtler forms of racism in our current system. Presenting a situation that reveals the complexity of race, power, and violence in Post-Ferguson America, "Rights of Passage" shows us a very layered and complicated situation, and invites us to draw our own conclusions.   A major motif that runs throughout the play is summed up in a line Victor utters: “This isn’t what I expected!” Jon Herbert says the play “asks a lot of very difficult questions, and doesn’t really attempt to answer them. Both plays, while fast paced and entertaining, are ultimately serious dramas that will give audiences a close-up look at some of the major players in this national drama—the cop and his would-be attorney, or the fiery protestor and his reluctant father. We watch this all on the TV, but theatre gives us a chance to wonder about what is really going on with these very complicated and complex individuals.” Both plays deal with the same basic issues, albeit in different ways.  

"Rights of Passage" and "Writer’s Block" will open Friday, February 6 and will run Fridays through Sundays until March 1. Performances will be at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30pm on Sundays.  After every Sunday performance Jon Herbert promises a talk-back session. “We will be inviting audiences that come Friday or Saturday too—they can come back on Sunday and be a part of that discussion.  Big Momma’s Back Porch Theatre has been doing productions for years.  But we would really like to see this be the beginning of more plays that explore African-American and multicultural themes. There’s a bit of a deficit of that in this area.” Seating is limited (about 50 persons can be accommodated at each performance). This production is suggested for mature audiences. For more information, call 865-9911.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.