Featured photo: The set for Nice White Parents 2016 (photo by Kaitlynn Havens)

The stage lights illuminate a row of 10 perfectly aligned folded chairs, a cardboard cutout silhouette of a child angled against each one. “Hush Little Baby,” hums from beyond the stage curtains. Behind the row of chairs, a symbol seen on yard signs, T-shirts, bumper stickers and protest banners across the United States: the black-and-white flag, synonymous with Black Lives Matter. The striking difference is that this one reads, “Nice White Parents.”

Nice White Parents 2016, presented by Creative Greensboro and the theater arts collective Scrapmettle, is the story of a liberal, Southern town that finds itself immersed in the conversation, and inherent lack thereof, of race relations in 2016. Written by Tamara Kissane, the story explores when parents of young children, both Black and white, are forced to reckon with the activism happening around them in the wake of deaths of Black Americans like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice at the hands of police. 

The production, which is set to run in Greensboro Thursday through Sunday, offers a passing glimpse into the lives of the Berry family (a liberal, white, seemingly upper-middle-class family), the Campbells (a Black family whose patience for educating their white counterparts is wearing thin), Ray Shingle (a disgruntled, white father), and Principal Rosemary Jackson (a passionate Black educator who spends more time extinguishing fires than leading her school).

The audience is charged with questions from the opening scenes: Is the Berry family willing to do anti-racist work? Will Lorraine Campbell have an ally in her friend? Is it possible for Ray Shingle to recognize his obvious microaggressions? And as a Black educator, what does Principal Jackson owe her student’s families? 

Writer Kissane is no stranger to the subject matter. 

“To me, it was really important to emphasize that white people need to do the work to dismantle racism both their internal racism and also the systemic and pervasive racism in our society,” she says. “It is not up to the BIPOC community to educate us or to do all of the heavy lifting in this regard.”

Actors rehearse for ‘Nice White Parents 2016.” L-R: Katherine Barron as Cindy Berry, Sherrod Simmons as Trevor Campbell, Alexis Scales as Lorraine Campbell, Andy Kahn as Eric Berry (photo by Kaitlynn Havens)

Keeping that emphasis in mind, both Kissane and director Todd Fisher of Creative Greensboro wanted to ensure Black voices were centered in the production. Fisher reached out to Angela Williams Tripp, who works in research and development for Scrapmettle, one of the premier Black theater voices in Greensboro, to collaborate.

Tomeka Collins, who plays Principal Rosemary Jackson, has been involved with Scrapmettle for eight years. Collins worked in education for over 20 years, an experience that informed her character’s development. 

“What would you do as a teacher? What would you do as a parent? What would you do as a principal? The conversation of race will be here forever, there’s no going around it. So have the conversation,” she encourages. 

Nice White Parents 2016 asks its audience to question their impact each time they put on blinders, take a break from the news or choose silence over conflict.

“Was it a march for peace, or Black Lives Matter?” Cindy Berry asks her children in one of the opening scenes. “I thought it was just general activism,” she nervously shrugs.

Fisher emphasizes the damaging effects of that sort of willful ignorance throughout the production. 

“We came up with this idea of ‘swiping’ through the play like you would a social media feed,” he says. “It’s so much of what Cindy’s character does. Here’s a moment, now here’s another moment. Here’s one you don’t want to see. Here’s one you do. It matches the texture of the script and the way so many of us went through 2016.”

Kissane wants audience members to remember that year, and to examine its differences and similarities to today. But she also hopes to remind people of the communities that allow for difficult discussions, of their existence.

“As a white Parent,” she says, “discussion is essential for growth and understanding, but educate yourself before you open your mouth. Listen before speaking. Embrace and expect discomfort. Wade into these conversations with humility. And always remember, the kids are paying attention.” 

Nice White Parents 2016 runs January 19-21 at 7:30 p.m., and 2 p.m. on Jan 22, at the Stephen D. Hyers Theatre in the Greensboro Cultural Center, 200 N. Davie St. Entry is free with a suggested donation of $10.

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