“We are a chorus of voices. We are singing for our lives.”
Kendall Thomas, the Nash Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia Law School, said it so simply. On August 1, countless members from the Broadway community came together in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through song, poetry, spoken word and movement, they demanded change because, well, they had to.
The free event was met with a line that wrapped around the corner and down the block uptown at Columbia University, the Ivy League school that jumped on board in support when Broadway cried out.
Friends, family, fellow supporters and activists made their way into Lerner Hall’s Roone Arledge Auditorium, for the program that began shortly after the 8:30 PM start time. Crystal Monee Hall opened with Aaron Neville’s “Oh Freedom” followed by John Lennon’s “Imagine,” singing, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace…”
Towards the end of the evening, Thomas requested of the audience, “I would like to invite you to join me in what I’ll call an imagination exercise,” bringing the concert event full-circle. “It’s an exercise that takes place not in words, but in song, because we are singing for our lives. Some of you will know, and I will invite you to sing with me: Holly Near’s wonderful song, ‘We are a gentle, angry people singing for our lives. We are a justice seeking people singing for our lives’ because it is not in our individual voices, but in the weaving of our voices together, in the thunderous sound of our voices together—this wall of sound—that we will overcome.”
The crowd of hundreds sang out, and the audience stood united—black, white, gay, straight, male, female, transgender and on.
Thomas explained that “Black Lives Matter” is for not only “black” lives, but women’s lives and queer lives and immigrant lives and transgender lives. The event aimed to educate and support all oppressed lives and to promote change.
To think—it all began with a Facebook post.
“This evening is a result of activism—of a desire to do something,” explained Audra McDonald, the first to speak following Hall’s performance. “For the past many months, we have been involved in a show called Shuffle Along. A group of African-American artists in 1921 got together and created something that was bigger than the sum of its parts, a show that changed Broadway and the world, by being one of the forces that paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance, and while we were doing this show, we were witness to the many disturbing acts that were happening in our present-day world. Acts that have continued to demonstrate the need and amplify the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“One of our cast members, Amber Iman, put out a Facebook post saying we need to do something, and it was a post that other cast members responded to. … And then other members of our diverse community responded, people like Jeanine Tesori, who is responsible for connecting the artists with the fellow thinkers at Columbia University right here.”
Her Shuffle Along co-star, Brian Stokes Mitchell — at her side — explained why it is important that we, as artists, be the ones who ignite the fire. “As artists,” he said, “we have the special ability to change people forever, sometimes in one epiphanal moment. Artists can change people’s hearts and minds and help them see themselves or their world in a different way—to empower people to be the change they want to see. What artists understand deeply is the power of collaboration, and Broadway is perhaps the most collaborative of all of the art forms—it is a collective of actors, singers, dancers, choreographers, directors, designers, composers, lyricists, musicians, producers, investors, publicists, theatre owners and on and on and on. All of these disparate disciplines working together for the same end—understanding our own strengths and weaknesses, when to take center stage and when to step back and support those who can do what we can’t.”
He said the Broadway for Black Lives Matter event is merely a “conversation of what we can do together as a collective.”
He continued, “Our President Obama so beautifully said, ‘To create the possibility for people of good will to join and make things better.’ Tonight is the beginning of that.”
McDonald agreed, “Tonight is not where this ends; tonight is where this begins.”
When the cast of Encores! Runaways took the stage, their words could not hit closer to home as they shouted through song, “Let me play out on the playground.” The lyrics rang all too reminiscent of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot dead on a playground in Cleveland, OH. The Black Lives Matter movement was birthed from the murders around the country, like Rice’s, in which police brutality claimed innocent lives—or as Damon K. Jones, the New York representative for Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, calls it: “police criminality.”
The names were spoken August 1. In spoken word and poetry by Daniel Beaty and Daniel J. Watts, audiences heard names such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice and the many more who have now become the “future ancestors”— lives taken all too soon, but lives we must remember and celebrate as we strive to move the country forward.
Frank Roberts, a professor at New York University who created courses on the movement (“Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Popular Protest” and “By Any Means Necessary: The Lives of Malcolm X and James Baldwin”) as well as a syllabus that can be found here, took the stage to educate the audience.
“Black Lives Matter is a movement seeking to re-humanize a dehumanized people,” he said. “Black Lives Matter is a human rights movement, and seeing as all lives matter, there shouldn’t be any controversy focusing on black lives. The problem with ‘All Lives Matter’ is that all lives haven’t mattered in the same way to the state. … Black Lives Matter is saying all lives can’t matter until black lives do.
“Number two, Black Lives Matter is an intersectional movement. [It] was founded in July 2013 by three brave black woman, and I speak their names with reverence and honor, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. First of all, two of the three woman of Black Lives Matters are queer woman… The other founder is a Nigerian-American sister…
“Black Lives Matter not only belongs to black history, it also belongs to LGBTQ history. … 1969, the Stonewall riots, the so-called birth place of the modern civil rights, the modern gay rights movement, was what? What was that about? Police violence. Sound familiar? That’s what Stonewall was about—a movement against police misconduct. I say that to say the struggles of Stonewall in 1969 are not altogether different than the struggles of Ferguson. We don’t want to conflict those things, by any means, but we want to draw the connections and intersections. Black Lives Matter is an intersection of [those movements]. When we say Black Lives Matter, we are already talking about women’s lives and queer lives and immigrant lives and all those lives and not simply cisgender heterosexual black men.”
Performances continued throughout the night. Influential black artists (from both Broadway and mainstream music) such as Grammy Award nominee Ledisi, Tony Award winner Billy Porter and Grammy Award winner India.Arie took the stage, occasionally asking audiences to participate, sing out and be heard.
Aside from song, though, the event gave opportunity for discussion. A panel, conducted by Richard Gray (the Director of the Community Organizing and Engagement Division of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University), included Anurima Bhargava (The Institute of Politics at Harvard), Jones (Blacks in Law Enforcement of America), Sharias Cumberbatch (Exoneration Initiative Clinic, Brooklyn Law Students for the Public Enforcement of America) and Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis.
Bhargava spoke of the flaws in the justice system and how people have been treated unfairly throughout the years. Driving tickets pile up, forcing black Americans into jail when the tickets cannot be paid. Cumberbatch spoke of poverty crimes. Parents are stealing for their children to eat and survive, causing endless arrests for such crimes. Lewis talked of segregation, recounting the pain he felt the first time he was called a “nigger.” He then spoke of accountability and how police are not held accountable by tests throughout the years to ensure that they are doing their jobs correctly.
The conversations need to be had, and moderator Gray said, “This is not the end.” Lewis added, “The squeaky wheel will be heard. Let’s just keep getting squeaky.”
Audience members stood and cheered throughout the almost three-hour evening. Teary-eyed supporters and activists left the building feeling hopeful, inspired and ready for change.
Iman and Britton Smith, two of the leading forces behind the event—along with Adrienne Warren, Aisha Jackson, Mykal Kilgore, Douglas Lyons, Andrew Shade and Jacquelyn Bell and organizations Broadway Black and The Oneness Project—said thank yous at night’s end. More importantly, they provided a beacon of hope.
“This whole event—the reason why you guys are all here—happened because we were angry,” said Smith, “and it happened in a month. … Everybody has that same power to move that tiny rock and that big mountain of trouble that seems overwhelming. If each of you take action like we took action, we can be doing more things like this more often.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.