César Alvarez, a playwright and
composer and lyricist, addressed an audience gathered in an auditorium on the
campus of NC A&T University on Nov. 1 for a reading of the Emily Mann play Greensboro: A Requiem.
“The story of the Greensboro
Massacre is one of violent white supremacy, so this story contains violent
white supremacy and other kinds of supremacy,” said Alvarez, a Greensboro
native who is named after César Cauce, one of five antiracist activists slain in
1979. Alvarez identifies as “part of the survivor community”
are slurs in this play,” Alvarez continued. “There’s the N-word. There’s the
K-word. There’s the F-word — not ‘fuck.’ There’s maybe that, too, but we’re
gonna say that.”
asked the readers — dozens of Greensboro residents seated in numbered chairs on
stage like an orchestra — to substitute “N-word,” “K-word” and “F-word” for the
actual words. Although it might feel awkward, Alvarez suggested looking at the
substitution as “device of theatrical distancing” that would not only allow “us
to be safe in our community,” but also “to open ourselves more to the story.”
In previous experiences, Alvarez said, “it was actually quite intense because
it allowed us to engage with this hatefulness differently.”
in 1996. When the play was first produced, the events that inspired it —
concluding with the third trial in 1985 — were scarcely a decade old. Now, the
play is more than 20 years old. But it still conveys the immediacy of the
violence that ruptured a sunny day in the low-income housing project of
Morningside Homes in Greensboro on Nov. 3, 1979. And Mann’s exploration of how
the massacre shattered the survivors and how the white power movement has
shapeshifted in the years since still feels relevant.
one of the greatest honors of my life to have been entrusted with this story,”
Mann said before the reading in Greensboro, “and I want to thank all the
survivors and the community for their belief in me over all these years of
work. And I hope that giving back to the community in this way will be an act
overlapping voices of the Communist Workers Party members from 1979 wrestling
with the threat of Ku Klux Klan violence scarcely sound dated. It’s easy to
imagine the antiracists who have been engaged in weekly confrontations with
armed neo-Confederates in Pittsboro over the past two months saying, “Do we
stay home behind closed doors and tremble?… Do we say ridiculous things like,
‘This is a quarrel between two hate groups?’… Do we make public statements to
the press saying we deplore violence/ then do nothing?… THE KLAN MUST NOT BE
ALLOWED TO GROW!… Armed self-defense is the only defense.”
as with today, when white-supremacist activism masquerades as anticommunism,
the Klan and Nazi shooters were acquitted in the second trial — a federal criminal
proceeding based on alleged civil rights violations — through an argument that
their actions were motivated by anticommunism as opposed to racism.
indictment used a very narrow statute of the civil rights law,” says Lewis
Pitts, the lawyer for the survivors. “They made it so you had to prove racial
animus — a racial motivation for the murders — so the defense used anticommunism
again — ‘outside agitators and communists came down here and caused trouble,
Nov. 1 performance of Greensboro: A
Requiem at A&T was conceived as a “cold reading,” meaning that the
volunteer readers, mostly community members who are not trained actors, read
their lines with no previous experience with the script. But in a poignant
twist, Paul and Sally Bermanzohn, two survivors, read their own lines. Also
confounding the format to heightened dramatic effect, Bob Foxworth, who is the
husband of survivor Signe Waller and a Mark Twain impersonator, read the lines
of Eddie Dawson, a Ku Klux Klan member who was an informant for the Greensboro
Police Department. And Miller Lucky Jr., an associate theater professor at
A&T, gave a searing reading of Nelson Johnson, who led the fateful
anti-Klan rally in 1979 and who now serves with his wife, Joyce, as
co-executive director of the Beloved Community Center.
documentary-style play, which incorporates the actual words of real-life people
augmented by material from her own interviews, comes close to dissolving the
distance between art and life — never more so than when Paul Bermanzohn read
his own lines describing how he came to the confrontation with the Klan in 1979
as someone conscientious of his parents’ experience surviving the Holocaust.
remember I was lying in the hospital — I didn’t know whether I would live or
die — I’d had six hours of surgery on my brain — and my mother, tiny as she is…
well… she could terrify me,” he read. “I lay there more frightened of facing
her than I’d been facing the Klan-Nazi guns and she came into the hospital
room, looked at me a long time, then she hugged me.”
stage directions call for the actor to be “choked up,” but the convulsion of
emotion and tears were real when Bermanzohn read, “She said: ‘Son, I’m proud of
in a later scene, where the couple comes to grip with their transition from
revolutionary commitment to middle-of-the-road respectability, Bermanzohn
cracked up, the audience with him, as he read, “I guess I feel like I’m just a
vaguely progressive guy.”
the fourth and final act neared the conclusion, Lucky gave a reading of Nelson
Johnson that would sound familiar to anyone who has heard the man preach on
Sunday mornings or rally activists in weekday evening community meetings in
church fellowship halls in Greensboro.
does it mean when folk that you love can’t get a job, pushed outside of the
workforce?” Lucky read, his voice aching with tribulation. “What does it mean
when you find yourself beaten in the back of a judge’s chamber, with your head
bleeding, and taken to jail? What does it mean when there’s so much suffering
want to conclude this message by saying that dying is not the worst thing in
the world, but perhaps living for nothing, and then dying,” Lucky read, letting
his voice drop to the low registers before roaring back to a crescendo.
all gonna die,” he said. “Why don’t we stand for something while we’re living?”
a spontaneous wave of applause rippled through the auditorium as a signal of
church, the activists, the community said, Amen.
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