Theater as healing on the 40th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre

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Paul and Sally Bermanzohn (back row, right) take part in a reading of "Greensboro: A Requiem." (photo by Jordan Green)

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”

“There 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.”

Alvarez 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.”

Greensboro: A Requiem debuted 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.

“It’s 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 of healing.”

The 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.”

And 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.

“The 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, your honor….’”

The 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.

Mann’s 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.

“I 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.”

The 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 you.’”

But 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.”

As 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.

“What 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 and persecution?

“I 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.

“We’re all gonna die,” he said. “Why don’t we stand for something while we’re living?”

And a spontaneous wave of applause rippled through the auditorium as a signal of affirmation.

The church, the activists, the community said, Amen.

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