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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Note from Brandt

As many of you know, I volunteered in Philadelphia for the Barack Obama presidential campaign this past Fall. The experience inspired me in a way I never believed electoral politics could. If any of you spent any time on the Campaign for Change, you know what I'm talking about: the overwhelming excitement, the palpable sense that we were all coming together to work toward something greater than ourselves, and the sincere hope that with enough hard work and good will we might heal our broken nation and realize the promises we had seen broken over the last eight years. I remember thinking, "This is how democracy works! Ordinary folks getting out there and talking to their neighbors, saying, 'Let's talk about what we want to see in our community!'"

Our hard work paid off. And that night, as I watched on television as Barack walked out onto the stage in Grant Park, it hit me: "We just elected a black man to be President of the United States." Up to that moment, I had never really taken the time to think about what that would mean. In the days that followed, I have been wrestling with that question: What does this mean? How is this going to change the way we look at and talk about race in this country? Now that we've broken this seemingly insurmountable barrier, where do we go from here?

We feel that these are essential questions that all must be asking ourselves as Americans right now and we look forward to putting them to any and every American that will talk to us when we take off in just four short days. Several people have already begun sending us their own stories and reflections via email, which has been greatly appreciated.

We have also received an incredible outpouring of support from our friends and family for the project in the way of donations, offers for lodging, and interview connections, for which we are extremely grateful. Your kindness and enthusiasm has been an inspiration to us these last few days as we have scrambled to make our final preparations.

We are, of course, still collecting donations and still looking for interviewees along the route, so in case you haven't heard from us (...yet...) please take a look at Godfrey's post below, which outlines more completely what we're looking to do with this thing and what we'll need to do it. We'll be posting a more comprehensive route in the next couple days before we head out, and soon after that we'll start throwing up interview selections, so stay on the lookout!

Thanks again for everything! And happy holidays!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Godfrey on the Project

I hope this holiday season finds you well and, at some point, well rested. I'm writing in order share with you a project that I'm embarking on that I feel will require the support of my entire community of friends, family, and colleagues.

In the 24 hours following the historic 11PM announcement of Barack Obama's landslide victory on November 4th, I saw a euphoria I had never witnessed before. People were beaming, dancing in the streets, congratulating me, making quiet yet meaningful eye contact with me. Even I -- who was more than skeptical about the likelihood that America would ever send an African American to the White House as late as November 3rd -- even I called my father in tears, held my wife in my arms. "It happened," I said. "We made it happen." "We did it" seemed to be the day's subtext, even among those who didn't vote for Obama. I felt it too. However, I also felt something that lurked behind the euphoria and the historic implications of the election: Now that we've elected a black man as President for the first time, what do we do now? What happens next? Is "the race question" answered? And what are we going to do with all of this hope and optimism and new found civility in American public life? I am curious if other people are having the same feelings of anxiety, confusion, anticipation, and yes, hope that I am. I want to find out how this election has affected the lives of individual Americans. I want to hear the personal stories of Americans as we head into this truly New Age, an age defined, for now, only by its potential.

In the month leading up to the Presidential Inauguration, I will be traveling throughout America with my friend and colleague Brandt Adams to interview Americans about this watershed event. The guiding questions will be: What does the election of America's first African American President mean to you? Has this changed your life and if so, how? Has this changed America? What do we do now? We feel we can best investigate these questions by soliciting real Americans' own stories of the 2008 presidential election through their eyes and in their own words. What are their hopes for the President elected on hope? What suggestions can they give to an Obama administration that would keep them engaged in the governance of our country?

The interviews, which will be digitally recorded either on audio or video, will form the basis of a documentary theatre piece called DISPATCHES FROM (A)MENDED AMERICA. Brandt and I, two displaced sons of the South, will begin traveling on December 28th along the same routes used by The Freedom Riders in 1960 and then make our way from Mississippi, North toward Chicago, retracing The Great Migration of African Americans from 1910-1940. Finally, we'll make our way eastward through Philadelphia, finally landing in Washington DC on January 19th in time for the Presidential Inaugural Ceremony. We plan to interview people in Farmville, Virginia, home to one of the school districts included in the original five cases comprising Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Greensboro, site of the first civil rights sit-in at Woolworth's; and Oxford, Mississippi, where James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. The fact that Brandt is a 25-year-old white man born and raised in Virginia and I am a 42-year-old black man raised in Virginia only serves to amplify the resonance of this project to us both personally and politically.

This project is a huge endeavor, so Brandt and I will need lots of help, financially and otherwise.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: This ambitious trip will cost us around $5,200 (transportation, food, and lodging) and that's not including recording equipment. In the spirit of President-elect Obama's Campaign for Change, we are asking all of our friends and colleagues to donate $25 each to help us cover expenses during this trip. We figure if we can get 200 of our friends to donate $25 each, we'll be able to gather the material necessary to complete our project without being anxious about money. Please make donations payable to me, Godfrey Simmons. My address is 177 New York Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, 11216.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN MAKING TAX-DEDUCTIBLE AND/OR LARGER DONATIONS: We are currently in the process of securing fiscal sponsorship with THE FIELD, a non-profit in New York City that specializes in fiscal sponsorships for artists raising money for projects. Please call me directly at 347.406.6107 if you are interested in this option or if you'd like to use a card to donate.

WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?: First of all, you'll be able to follow our progress with DISPATCHES through our blog. We plan on uploading edited versions of our audio interviews, as well as some of our video interviews. Second, you'll be on the ground floor of what we feel is both a promising piece of theatre and a potentially important social document. Third, you'll have a timely tax write-off for your 2008 taxes should you choose the tax-deductible donation option.

OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP: We need places to stay in the cities and towns where we are visiting. One night's lodging will probably cost us at least $60, so that would be a huge savings. Our confirmed route will be posted on our blog, but but we're definitely hitting Greensboro, NC: Birmingham, AL; New Orleans, LA; Oxford, MS; Memphis, TN; Chicago, IL; and Philadelphia, PA. If you're interested in offering a place to stay OR if you have family or friends who could put us up please let us know ASAP. We also will need interviewees! If you know people in the places we mentioned above who would be great interview subjects OR could setBrandt and I up with some interesting people to interview, please let us know -- we're trying to talk to professors, military, teachers, laborers, baby boomers, college students, politicians, the working poor, and artists -- particularly theatre artists we meet along the way, and people of every race and religion.

The election of Barack Obama has initiated a time of both euphoria and fear. Euphoria at the prospect of America finally living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence; fear at the immense challenges that lay ahead for our country and our new leader. Halfway between Euphoria and Fear -- what better place to create a piece of theatre?

Thanks so much for considering this and please contact me by email or by phone if you have any questions.