In the warm, tinfoil-encrusted space that is JACK, a Clinton Hill arts center, a small crowd has gathered and six performers take the stage and place their scripts on music stands.
The group is reading “Aftermath,” a play written in 1919 by African-American playwright Mary P. Burrill, that tells the harrowing tale of a black soldier who returns home from World War I, only to discover that his father has been lynched by a white mob, and his family has been keeping it a secret from him for months.
The play depicts the trauma that a lynching inflicts on a family and explores the different ways that family members react to it. It also deals with the hypocrisy many black soldiers confronted when fighting for the U.S. abroad.
“How can you be a patriot for a country that is destroying your family,” said Courtney Harge, who directed Sunday’s reading. “His family is fighting on their home front, a different type of war that ultimately killed his father.”
Anti-lynching plays like “Aftermath” were written throughout the 20th century in response to the brutal realities that African Americans faced in the south. The plays often take place in an ordinary, domestic setting and occur leading up to or in the aftermath of a lynching.
“They aren’t protest plays in the sense of saying this is wrong you need to fix this,” Harge said. “They’re really presenting information, saying this is what happens and this is the terrible effect that this has.”
The reading was part of JACK’s spring programming called Forward Ferguson – several months of performances, dance parties, discussions and events that will explore race and policing within communities of color.
As part of Forward Ferguson, Harge will curate five different readings of anti-lynching plays all pulled from the anthology “Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women.”
Alec Duffy, the founder and artistic director of JACK, approached Harge a few months back with the idea to present works from the collection. Harge’s theater company Colloquy Collective focuses on re-examining older plays and the two had worked together in the past.
Harge said as she was reading through the plays, she was jarred by how uncannily pertinent they were today.
“I was shocked by the normalcy but also how familiar that felt,” she said. “The parallels to now are very real… If you go outside and you have an interaction with a police officer you do not know how this will end.”
That’s reminscent of the uncertainty and horror that African Americans faced for decades in the south.
“The idea that the family member or anybody you know could walk outside…and just disappear,” Harge said.
Duffy, founder of JACK, said he hoped the space would serve as a “bullhorn” for the current social and political movement.
“Some people will march in the streets, and some people will actually get themselves elected and push through reforms,” he said. “[But] some people are artists who want to create art that raises awareness.”
You can see the full spring program for Forward Ferguson here.