Arts and Culture

Black Women Explore Pain and Power in Amplify: The Ladies' Edition

Performers in the Arvada Center's Amplify: The Ladies’ Edition, which turns up the volume on Black women.
Performers in the Arvada Center's Amplify: The Ladies’ Edition, which turns up the volume on Black women. Arvada Center
In June, the Arvada Center released Amplify, a three-part video series starring five Black male actors performing theater pieces of their own choosing. Betty Hart, a theater artist with a distinguished career in both classical and contemporary work, directed the series, a response to the resurrgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a showcase of the wealth of Black talent in the Front Range theater community, a talent that is often sadly unseen and underutilized.

Now the center has begun to release Amplify: The Ladies’ Edition. The first segment, which dropped on August 14, includes five local performers. Through music, movement and words, it explores the “power, pain and passion of black women” and “the heartbreak of the black movement." It’s a knockout — visually, aurally, intellectually and emotionally — with stunning performances and first-rate production values.

Working from a list of forty, Hart found selecting performers wasn’t easy. “There were too many great choices.” She finally chose a handful of actors who are well known locally, and others who, she says, “have yet to be celebrated or in some cases discovered. I’ve seen all these ladies. I’ve had the pleasure of working with eleven of them either as a fellow actor or as their director. I’ve directed nine of them in shows or readings. This is an example that the talent pool is larger than some people realize.”

It’s impossible not to weep with Colette Brown as she delivers Eboni B. Justice’s “I Cried Today.” Here, a mother talks about her fears for her black sons in “a world that does not love them” and repeats the terrifyingly explicit directions she’s provided her oldest on what to do when he’s pulled over while driving: Keep all bags and backpacks in the trunk; make sure his license is in the cup holder so that it’s easily and instantly accessible; always keep his hands on the dashboard where they can be seen, and respond silently and obediently to every direction he’s given. Justice is the daughter of a close friend, Brown says, and the Amplify project “gave me an opportunity to give voice to her written words, which touched me as the mother of three adult black males, recalling when my sons were the ages of the young black males referred to in the monologue.

“We’ve all had to have ‘the conversation,’” she adds.

The second segment features Jasmine Jackson’s beautiful dancing to Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” a bird that, the song tells us, “ain’t never going to fly.” But the cinematography — by Jackson herself — is so dreamlike and evocative, that at the end we can’t help imagining that blackbird soaring into the skies. The piece is called “Bidden Biding.”

There’s some comedy, though it’s satiric, as Latifah Johnson plays a white woman lamenting the disappearance of all the black help — the essential workers who clean houses, garden and take care of babies — in Douglas Taylor Ward’s Day of Absence, written in 1965 but still bitingly relevant. This disappearance spells “the downgrading of Southern belledom,” the woman complains, and that is the one thing that “provides the backbone, inspiration and ideology” of the South.

Most of us remember Ahmaud Arbery, the black man killed on his regular jog through his own neighborhood by a father and son who tracked him relentlessly before shooting him. Although the facts were entirely clear, the killers were not arrested until May — two months after the murder. In a monologue called “Like a Shield,” taken from her in-progress play, A Gift of Spoiled Fruit, Marisa Hebert describes how this has affected the protagonist’s regular morning runs, her customary sense of joy and safety when she’s outdoors. She’s afraid to linger outside the multimillion-dollar mansions she passes. She goes on the alert whenever she spots a man she hasn’t seen before. She wonders if her own last words might be, “Please don’t hurt my dogs.” Her wife is white, and sometimes she wishes she could wear that whiteness herself and “use it as a shield.”

Then comes Stephanie Hancock singing her own composition, “The La La Song,” with such expansive warmth and generosity that you can’t help feeling just a tremor of hope for humankind. For Hancock, Amplify provides “an opportunity to share a lighter, hopeful message of joy. There is so much turmoil and hatred in the world right now. We need to find a sense of peace through the awakening of the spirit of love inside of each of us. I hope my song amplifies this.”

The two forthcoming Amplify: The Ladies’ Edition videos will drop on August 28 and September 11, and will include Adrienne Martin-Fullwood, Ilasiea Gray, Jada Roberts, Kristina Fountaine, Lynne Hastings, Mary Louise Lee, Michaela Murray, Sheryl McCallum, Simone St. John and Therese Gardner.

Hart says she was moved to tears when she first saw the actors’ contributions: “I was astonished at how bravely the ladies opened their hearts to all of us. Their strength, the strength of vulnerability, was a beacon of hope while also being a visceral reminder of the pain they’ve endured. I saw myself in their pieces, and there was something magnificent in seeing us reflected in their work, in their words.”

Watch the Amplify series on the Arvada Center's YouTube page.
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman