Sunday, December 12, 2010


This Friday at 8PM and Saturday at 4PM, please join us in a presentation to our play based on these interviews we conducted down south nearly two years ago! Location information below. ALSO, CHECK US OUT ON FACEBOOK -- SEARCH DISPATCHES FROM (A)MENDED AMERICA.

LocationPregones Theater
575 Walton Avenue
Bronx, NY

Created By


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Toenails and Patterns in Columbia

SO, I'm on the toilet at my friend Peter Duffy's house in Columbia, South Carolina.  Now before folks get nauseous, I am clipping my toenails.  Anyway.  I'm on the toilet and in front of me hangs a beige shower curtain made up of a series of suede-like and mesh panels, each about 4x4 squares.  There are some spaces where there are no panels, just a square space.  I find myself desperately searching for a pattern of missing panels -- do the missing panels make up an "X" or a cross?  Tic Tac Toe?  Do the blank spaces make any shape?

I realized that my need to look for patterns has now nearly become pathological.  I wonder what other people need to look for in the world?  Do we all look for the same meaning in our world?  As we go through the south interviewing people, I've begun to realize that perhaps the reason there is so little in the way of cooperation between Yanks and Rebels, North and South, Blue and Gray, is because each of us is looking for a different kind of meaning in the world.  We interviewed Booker Mitchell, Peter's next door neighbor.  A very young looking brown-skinned man in his 80s, Mr. Mitchell is retired from both the Air Force and Police Department of Columbia.  He talked a lot about his experiences with Jim Crow when he came back to South Carolina after his stints in the military, but never said Mr. Crow's name.   He told us he was shot 9 times as if he were reading a laundry list.  It wasn't until near the end of his interview that we find out he was the first to integrate his neighborhood in Columbia.  He said they threw eggs on his car.  I asked who "they" were -- were they white?  He said something to the effect of, "I don't know.  I didn't see them throw the eggs at the car.  That could have been anybody. "

What kind of grace is required to keep oneself from looking for meaning where there just might be some?  I wonder what kind of anger I'd see from him if I didn't have a young white man sitting next to me, although I suspect that Mr. Mitchell, and I mean MR. Mitchell, is not afraid to speak his mind to anyone.  But the absolute NEED to just keep moving forward seems to be something of a mission for his entire generation of men and women of color.  Why?

I've tried on that kind of grace, but it just doesn't fit.  I'm still angry.  Someday I won't know that a white person threw eggs at Mr. Mitchell's car. 


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Update from Columbus, GA

So, it's late...very late.... And we're tired...very tired.... But we thought we would throw up a quick post tonight before turning in.

Yesterday we were in Columbia, SC and today we are in Columbus, GA. As if things weren't already running together.... This morning, on the way out of town, we went downtown to the state capitol, where we saw this:

Top left: a Confederate soldier; Top Right: the Confederate Flag; Bottom Left: My colleague eating an egg sandwich from Drake's Duck-In, home of "Quackin' Good Food"

This was disheartening after spending last night having a long conversation with our gracious host Peter Duffy, a transplant to the South who spoke very eloquently (those audio clips are coming, I swear!) about the presence of racism throughout the United States and the trap that Americans often fall into of using the South as a scapegoat for their own racism. It can be all too easy to say, "Well, at least we're not the South!" And he's right. It's easy to lay the burden of racism in the whole country on this region because of the long and well-documented story of race here. That story is an important one. It's why we're here. It's why we're doing this project. I can, however, tell you from my own experience that you would be hard-pressed to find a more racist place in the U.S. than New York City.

That said, it's incredibly difficult to remember that when you're staring at a symbol like that being brazenly flown on the front lawn of the State House. You might remember a huge controversy over the flag being flown over the capitol dome in 2000. It caused such a stir that the state finally felt compelled to take it down...and put it on the front lawn....

Then again, when we pan out, we can see the Christmas tree they've erected this holiday season about two feet in front of the thing:

So right now, when you look at the State House from the street, this is what you see:

Either they have a decorator with a highly conflicted subconscious or somebody knew what they were doing here.

After that we drove to Columbus, where we had another round of great interviews and we are looking forward to a whole lot more tomorrow.

As for the interviews we have "in the can," so to speak, here's a pretty simple breakdown of what we have so far:

A retired engineer.
A retired administrative assistant.
The director of a Civil Rights museum.
The press director of a Civil Rights museum.
A Civil Rights activist and retired business executive turned consultant.
A sociologist.
Another sociologist and Civil Rights Activist.
A Secretary to a governor.
Two coordinators at a Youth LGBTQ non-profit.
An administrative assistant at that non-profit.
The artistic director of a theatre.
The director of an artists collaborative.
A ski instructor.
A public school teacher/administrator.
A painter.
A minister.
A manager at a nightclub.
A retired police officer.
A professor/teaching artist.
An actor.
Another artistic director of a theatre.
Another actor.
A student.

I don't want to you to think I'm limiting people by their profession, implying that it defines their whole being, but I thought it was an interesting breakdown to take a look at while we try to build the most comprehensive cross-section possible. We have our ideas about who we still feel we need to hit, but if you can think of any, please let us know.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

On "The South" and a little bit of Greensboro, NC

One of my primary interests in this project since the beginning has been the opportunity that it presents to explore this notion of "the South" and what that means to the people that live here. Growing up in Fredericksburg, VA, I have always felt like I had my own ideas about what "the South" meant to me, but I never really felt like it was something I was able to or chose to participate in while I was there. It never became part of my identity until I left it and, even then, choosing to leave the South soon became as much, if not more, of a part of my identity than the place itself ever was.

So we've been asking people what they think "the South" is as a place, but, more importantly, as an idea. And in just a few short days we've already gotten a diverse array of really wonderful answers from Southerners, all of whom have embraced the idea as an extremely complex and often elusive idea. I would love to throw up a few audio clips, as we have promised (and still do promise) to do, to let them speak for themselves. We are, however, running into technical difficulties doing it, which is causing a delay, so you'll have to bear with me as I try to do their words justice on here.

Seth Croft, with whom we spoke in Richmond at the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (which you can learn more about here), had this to say:
"It means so much about tradition. Many people think of the traditions only in terms of...people go to church every Sunday, stuff like that, or hospitality, things like that. But I think there's a tradition of struggle and liberation."
Seth identifies strongly as a queer Southerner and spoke quite a bit about the complex identities and "shades of gray" the place contains. He warned against the conflation of "the South" and the Confederacy by outsiders but also by Southerners themselves. He hates those Confederate monuments Godfrey mentioned in an earlier post here and went on to say that he believed a more appropriate representation would be monuments to the struggle for justice in the South.

To Richmond and "the South's" credit, however, earlier in the day, Secretary Baskerville showed us this:

A monument to the Moton High School walkout in Farmville, VA. Here's the other side:

That's Barbara Johns in the center. It's really a very beautiful memorial. I highly recommend anyone passing through Richmond check it out. As monuments go, this may be a big step toward properly honoring that long tradition of struggle and the ongoing progress toward liberation.

Once we hit Greensboro, NC, however, we ran into this:

This is the Woolworth's where, on February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T sat down and refused to leave until they were served and began the sit-in movement throughout the South in the decade that followed. You can see that it's boarded up. They've been working on turning it into a Civil Rights museum for several years now, but every time it looks like it's about to open, a new problem springs up. We were told by more than one person along the way that it was "bad politics" in Greensboro to push to make this thing happen. Apparently there's still a lot of resistance in the community to having a memorial to one of the pivotal events of the Civil Rights movement. And so the struggle to honor the struggle is clearly far from over.


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

December 30th

Okay, I know. We're behind in our posts and we've only just begun. But I ask for your patience, because...well...we've only just begun. We're figuring so much out and learning so fast how to do this documentary theatre thing. The first thing is, don't call it documentary theatre. People think we're making a film, even though the word documentary is followed immediately by theatre. And we're talking about some of the smartest people I know. This is good news actually. It means that documentary films have taken a leap in terms of their importance in the cultural landscape -- the word documentary now only culturally applies to films, which is okay I guess. There are worse things that could happen with worse words.

We were in Richmond, Virginia on Tuesday and had amazing interviews with Dr. Edward Peeples, a civil rights activist and Viola Baskerville, Secretary of Administration in the cabinet of Virginia's Governer Tim Kaine. They were both instrumental in getting some measure of justice for a state-sponsored crime against humanity. Now I know what you're thinking -- someone must've been killed or something. No. This was something else entirely. In 1951, African-American students at Robert Russa Moton High School in rural Prince Edward County, Virginia engineered a walkout to protest their run-down school, which led to a lawsuit that was folded into the challenge that triggered the 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court banning segregated public schools. Once the decision was handed down, Prince Edward County refused to integrate the schools. When counties were finally forced to do so in 1959, Prince Edward County CLOSED DOWN ALL PUBLIC SCHOOLS instead of integrating. So for five years, from 1959-1964, Prince Edward County schools were closed. White children that could afford it were placed in a private school, called "segregation academies" by some historians. Black children and poor white children had to either go to school out of district or forgo school altogether. (More on Farmville in a later post!)

Mrs. Baskerville, as a member of the Virginia State Legislature, led the drive to establish a $1 million scholarship fund that would help those that were robbed of an education in the early 60s to continue their studies. That package was increased by a million by a local private donor.

I found out that Mrs. Baskerville graduated from my alma mater, William and Mary. There's something that happens between black W&M alumni, a discussion that goes a little like this: "You went to William and Mary? I went to William and Mary." "Really? When?" "(Insert year here)." "Really? (Insert year here)." "Wow. How many?" "There were 60 in my class. You?" "6 black people in the whole residential college." William and Mary was a little late to the integration thing. But it certainly creates a strong bond with those that survived it.

Richmond is a beautiful city. According to Mrs. Baskerville, there are more 19th century stock buildings in Richmond than anywhere else in the country. Every house seems historic, especially along Monument Avenue, a celebration of the Confederacy it seems. I stress, IT SEEMS, because I have not looked at every monument on Monument Avenue. However, near the old train station (now a science museum), the first thing you would've seen 40 years ago as you walked into town was a roundabout circling a huge monument to Jefferson Davis. A little Googling tells me that there are six monuments on Monument Avenue -- four are Confederate war heroes, an oceanographer named Matthew Fontaine Maury, and tennis great, scholar, humanitarian, and very African-American Arthur Ashe. The Ashe monument was the last monument dedicated in 1996.

Richmond is indeed a beautiful city. It's getting more beautiful every day.

More on our visit to Richmond soon. Much more.


December 28th - Backlog I

SO, Brandt and I begin. I actually began my Dispatches investigation with my mother-in-law and stepfather-in-law, Holly and Jim. I should probably remove the "in-law" from their monikers here, because they treat me as one of their own. I love them dearly. However, just saying they are my wife's mother and stepfather seems so detached so.... In any case, they were kind enough to agree to be interviewed. One of the things that's been interesting as Brandt and I have embarked on this is that most people -- well, most U.S. citizens, feel like someone else would be more interesting to interview. The very people who have given the most to this project in terms of contacts, funding, and ideas -- when I say to them, "You do realize I want to interview you too," they say "Anything to help, but I don't know that I would have anything that interesting to say." There seems to be a fundamental humbleness to the people we are interviewing -- is that a North American trait?

In any case, Holly and Jim, who live in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech University, gave fascinating interviews despite any protestations to the contrary. At any given time during the school year, Virginia Tech students make up half of the city's population. And yet, neither of them consider Blacksburg truly "The South." Mostly, they see it as a college town and it's hard to argue with them. Much of Blacksburg apparently voted for Obama. I don't get the sense they feel like a political minority there.

Many of our questions deal with notions of what is America(n) and what Obama's election means to the US and its citizens. In separate interviews, Holly and Jim both focused on the idea of equal opportunity as being a bedrock of what is American (or at least the United States version of American -- I've never been to South America). There was a sense, particularly to Jim (born during the FDR administration), that Obama's election was America finally living up to the ideal of equal opportunity. It just felt like Obama was the right person for the job and US citizens recognized that. We've been hearing that a lot from people. It has made me think more about the nature of equal opportunity and what that really means. Does it mean that if someone else that has my race/religion/economic condition in common with me accomplishes something that yes I and my children have that opportunity too? Or does it mean that no matter what, I can achieve whatever I want as long as I have an opportunity to achieve it? It's interesting, because on the surface I believe, well yes I could have done that too -- be a black man raised by a single white mother, then transfer from a metropolitan LA college to an Ivy League school, become a grassroots organizer in Chicago, go to Harvard Law School, go back to Chicago grassroots organizing, process the death of my long-lost father, run for a former Black Panther's congressional seat and lose, then win every election thereafter...wait a minute. I couldn't do that. No way in hell I could do that. I don't have his eloquence, I don't have his equanimity, I don't have his...see I can't even come up with another appropriate word that starts with the letter "e"! I guess I could say I didn't have the equal opportunity because I'm not him. I was not the one. But if I were the one that had all of those Obama-esque qualities, I could have done what he's done, right? Which led to Jim's next point -- we don't all have equal abilities. I have no more business running a country than Obama has being an actor (although he'd probably be a brilliant actor and would be one of those charismatic guys who win Tonys and Oscars but WHATEVER!). But if I could run a country, maybe I could have an equal shot at it.

I agree with Jim on this point about the idea of America -- it should be about equal opportunity and on so many levels Obama seemed so capable, that we as a nation were finally able to sift through our racial nightmare and, all else being equal, elect an intelligent person president. But if Obama is the poster child for equal opportunity, what does that make George Bush, a man who by many accounts seemed so INcapable of so many things for much of his life? What does that say about the idea of America? Have we turned a proverbial corner from just 8 and 4 years ago? I suppose one could say that George Bush was a poster child for affirmative action -- a record of academic futility and commercial failure should not keep any one from becoming the Chief Executive of the United States.

Jim's astute observation about opportunity has given me a quandary. What does equal opportunity mean? Lemme know what you think.

Also, please visit our Facebook page, which is the title of our investigation, Dispatches from (A)mended America.

More soon.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Route!

Here is our working route as of today. Check it out and note that it has changed! Because of our limited time-frame and, the overwhelming response we have gotten from our friends in the South, we have decided to focus on that region in the days leading up to the Inauguration. We are still planning on going to Philly and Chicago later on, probably on weekends after the Inauguration.

So, give it a look. If you know anyone in these areas that would like to talk to us or might possibly be able to put us up while we're in town, please let us know!

December 28-29 Farmville, VA
December 30 Richmond, VA
December 31 Greensboro, NC
January 1 Undetermined, NC
January 2 Columbia, SC
January 3 Columbus, GA
January 4 Columbus, GA; Atlanta, GA
January 5 Birmingham
January 6 Birmingham, Montgomery
January 7 Oxford, MS
January 8 Oxford, MS
January 9 New Orleans, LA
January 10 New Orleans, LA
January 11 New Orleans, LA
January 12-15 Tennessee, beginning with Memphis
January 16 Knoxville, TN
January 17 Whitesburg, KY
January 18 Undetermined KY/VA
January 19 DC

We are still looking for housing in Greensboro, NC, New Orleans, LA, Oxford, MS, all of Tennessee (Memphis and Knoxville), and Kentucky.

Thanks, everybody!
-Godfrey and Brandt