A small film crew is shooting two actors performing at a table set in front of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when a police officer approaches them and asks them to cease filming until they obtain permits. Kwame Kwei-Armah tries to negotiate, but eventually asks his crew to wrap it up.
"Guerrilla theater-making, my friend," he says into a camera. "We got shut down. Didn't get to the end of the take, but hey."
The footage of the confrontation is tagged onto the end of the unfinished take. The crew was shooting a site-specific theater piece written by Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage in Baltimore, and Associate Artistic Director Hana Sharif. In the play, a black president and first lady grapple with a recent tragedy as the president prepares a speech to address his country.
"What if I hadn't run?" the president asks. "Would the hate have been this present? I can't believe that it would be."
Behind the two actors, the area in front of the church has been blocked off, people crowded around it. Nine people had recently been killed in a mass shooting inside the church. News teams and cameras are still buzzing. Jesse Jackson can be seen joining mourners.
Two days prior, Kwei-Armah and his crew had planned to fly out to San Francisco to shoot the same performance, a part of the My America Too series that Center Stage is presenting online piece by piece this week. But in the immediate aftermath of the church shooting, the Center Stage team decided to move the location to Charleston.
Each of the six My America Too plays were filmed in a single take at a specific location where an African-American had been killed. Center Stage commissioned six playwrights to write short, two-character plays set around a table to address racial injustice and what Kwei-Armah calls "the new civil rights movement."
"I began to feel that the America I came to in 2011 [from the United Kingdom] had slightly changed and something else was in the air," he tells City Paper over the phone. "I trusted writers to tell me about things that I may not trust from others. We reached out to 10 playwrights at that point to ask, What is the change, this new 'My America'? What is your America now?"
All of the responses, Kwei-Armah says, related to the Black Lives Matter movement, and so the Center Stage team wanted the plays to reflect the multifaceted nature of the movement.
"We want them to be three-dimensional . . . We want to look at it from every angle, around the American kitchen table."
"Middle of the Night," written by Neil Labute, focuses on two police officers who just killed a black man. As they plan to hide the body, they frantically recount the events leading up to the man's death and attempt to pardon themselves. The performance was filmed at the site of Eric Garner's death in New York City, in front of a beauty supply shop. A wreath honoring Garner still hangs on the wall.
In "That I Know for Sure" by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, the mother and son of a near-retirement police officer sit at a table standing over the site of Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The son recounts seeing his father shoot a young black man to death not long before. A man watches the performance below from his balcony, which dons a Confederate flag behind the face of a bulldog and the words "Rebel to the Bone."
"Middle of the Night" and "That I Know for Sure" have been posted to Center Stage's YouTube page and on its website.
The other four, including "Mr. President," will follow throughout the week. "Safety Measures" by Lydia R. Diamond was filmed in Ferguson, Missouri, near the location of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Footage at the end of the video reveals that the play was originally to be filmed on the street where Brown was shot, but a security guard demanded that they move. In the parking lot, a black father and his son discuss the son's wrongful arrest, the result of racial profiling.
In "Allies" by Larissa FastHorse, a couple discusses a recent racially motivated shooting at the site of Tamir Rice's shooting by Officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland, Ohio.
Center Stage turns its lens back to Baltimore for the performance of Kenneth Lin's "Mr. Chen," shot in front of the burned-out CVS in Penn-North. The windows of the building are still boarded up. As they wait for police to arrive, an Asian carry-out restaurant owner and his son try to deal with the damage done to their store after being looted, grappling with what they feel to be targeted betrayal from their immediate community.
Though wary of the "checkered history" of recorded live theater, Kwei-Armah says he and the Center Stage team decided to film the vignettes to help launch the company in the 21st century, following their previous digital projects, My America and Global Sister Cities.
"Theater will never die in its live essence," he says, "but how do we capture the very thing of performance in a live setting? We're living in the world of the camera, so it's important for us to try and negotiate that."
Despite the barrier of time and the screen between the actors and the audience, the plays still feel like live theater. In the videos, bystander audiences can been seen stopping to watch, and the single-take method maintains the freshness of live performance. Theatrical fantasy comes into play with the imaginary settings, marked only by a table and chairs. Though the actors perform in such heavy, real-life locations as Ferguson or Penn-North, the characters are in their homes.
"The beautiful thing about theater is that it can't be literal. The thing about film is that often it is literal," Kwei-Armah says. "So that was an interesting way of blending the best of two worlds: the metaphoric nature of theater, so that you wouldn't have to be literal; but then capturing it in one take all the way through with three cameras."
All six videos will be online by Dec. 12. Kwei-Armah says he team did not intentionally plan to have them go live during the trial of William Porter, one of the police officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, but the timing did encourage Center Stage to add a live portion to the project, to be held this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. in the theater. The program includes screenings of the videos as well as live performances of the plays and a panel discussion moderated by president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Sherrilyn Ifill on Saturday, and Marc Steiner, host of The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA, on Sunday.