Deaths Of Unarmed Black Men Revive 'Anti-Lynching Plays' : Code Switch The recent killings of unarmed black men by police have inspired a Brooklyn theater company to stage new readings of dramas written in the early 1900s about the lynching of African-Americans.

Deaths Of Unarmed Black Men Revive 'Anti-Lynching Plays'

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Art can be a window into a nation's social climate. Take the early 1900s when black playwrights created a genre known as anti-lynching plays. With the recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, some of these plays are being revived in New York. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.


LAUREN LATTIMORE: (As Pauline) See who's at the back door, Rebecca.

WI-MOTO NYOKA: (As Rebecca) Who there?

COURTNEY HARGE: (As Hester Grant) Me, me, it's Hester Grant. Let me in.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: This is a scene from "Blue-Eyed Black Boy." It's a play written around 1930 that talks about lynching, and an African-American family that gets some bad news.


HARGE: (As Hester Grant) Your son Jack has been arrested - arrested and put in jail. And, Pauline, that ain't the worst. They say there's going to be a lynching tonight. They're going to break open the jail and string him up.

WANG: If you think you know where this story's going, think again.

NYOKA: It's not a play where we reenact a lynching. The focus is not the gory details.

WANG: Wi-Moto Nyoka is one of the actors in "Blue-Eyed Black Boy."

NYOKA: This is a human take on our shared history.

WANG: And it's part of a series of play readings at JACK, a community theater in Brooklyn. All are one-act plays written mainly by black playwrights, back when lynchings were a common part of Southern life.

KORITHA MITCHELL: These plays were interested in saying, well, we're being told every day that we are hunted because we're a race of criminals. But in fact, the real reason that our neighbor was lynched was because he had land that whites wanted to take.

WANG: Or he had a successful business or family, according to Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University, who's written about these plays. Mitchell says they were often published in magazines for the black community and performed in churches and schools.

MITCHELL: Being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege was a really important counterpoint to a society that's always telling you that you deserve whatever you get.

WANG: Edmund Alyn Jones, an actor in "Blue-Eyed Black Boy," says he hopes modern-day audiences will get a better sense of both history and current events.

EDMUND ALYN JONES: I think the revival of these plays that happened a long time ago gives us enough distance to say oh, that's awful. Oh, wait a minute. That looks a lot like what's happening right now. Oh, I see.

WANG: In the play, a young black man is thrown in jail for brushing up against a white woman on the street - a theme Jones sees playing out today.

JONES: A young man now, if he's dressed a certain way or he's in a neighborhood that he doesn't belong in, that is the modern-day equivalent of bumping into that white lady.

HARGE: Someday you encounter the wrong person and your life is over. And that kind of idea feels very relevant to the world we particularly as black people are living in.

WANG: Courtney Harge is acting in and directing "Blue-Eyed Black Boy." She says Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed black men killed by police were on her mind as she prepared for this series of four plays. Rehearsals for the next one will begin after this Sunday's show. It's called "Safe," about an African-American woman who makes a tragic choice after giving birth to a baby boy. Just before he's born, she sees a young black man being lynched outside her home.

HARGE: And asks herself how do I bring a child into this world and try and keep them safe when they are looked at as threats just by existing? Is it cruel in some way to bring a child into this world that way? And it's an answer I don't have.

WANG: But they're questions in a play from 1929 that, Harge says, are just as pressing almost 90 years later. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

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