‘Brooklyn ’63’ highlights Brooklyn-based activists
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
After a successful inaugural season, the BEAT Festival returns this September to celebrate Brooklyn’s emerging artists in theater, dance, and voice. With pop-up performances taking place across the borough from September 12-21, this year’s festival will focus on site-specific, journey-based events in non-traditional Brooklyn venues.
Among the critically acclaimed groups participating this year is Ping Chong + Company/651 ARTS, which will perform “Brooklyn ’63”. This production will bring to life true stories of Brooklyn-based activists, witnesses and those who inherited the legacy of a generation of civic action. Created by Ping Chong, an internationally renowned theater director, choreographer and visual artist, “Brooklyn ’63” depicts a much forgotten history of community and social activism that took place in 1963 Brooklyn, when borough residents’ efforts crossed racial, religious and ethnic boundaries to foster social change.
“Brooklyn ’63” was developed and created through a unique process called Undesirable Elements, in which community-specific and interview-based theater works examine issues of culture and identity of individuals who are outsiders within their mainstream community. Each production is made with a local host organization and local participants.
“Brooklyn ’63” highlights experiences and perspectives from the early Labor movement, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike, the Downstate Medical Center protests led by Brooklyn CORE, the history of The East in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and numerous events that took place in Brownsville, Fort Greene, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, Williamsburg, Bushwick and many places in between.
In anticipation of the upcoming performances, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Talvin Wilks, the co-writer and co-director of Brooklyn ’63. He fills us in on the Undesirable Elements process and offers profiles of some of the activists involved in the performance.
How did the idea for this project originate?
651 ARTS approached Ping Chong + Company to create an oral history theatre piece for its Movement ’63 Season that would celebrate the history of civil rights and social justice in Brooklyn, particularly around the events of 1963.
Can you talk a bit about the ‘Undesirable Elements’ process and how that shaped ‘Brooklyn ’63’?
Undesirable Elements is an ongoing series of community-specific interview-based theater works that examine issues of race, culture, and identity in the real lives of individuals in specific communities. It’s not a traditional play or documentary-theater project performed by actors. Instead, Undesirable Elements is presented as a chamber piece of storytelling. Or, as Ping Chong says, Undesirable Elements is “a seated opera for the spoken word.”
Undesirable Elements exists as an open framework that can be brought to any community, and be tailored to suit the needs and issues facing that community. Each production is made with a local host organization with local participants testifying to their real lives and experiences.
The development process includes an extended community residency during which Ping Chong + Company artists conduct intensive interviews with potential participants, getting to know the issues and concerns facing the individuals and the community as a whole. These interviews form the basis of the script that weave participants’ individual experiences together in a chronological narrative, touching on both political and personal experience. The script is then performed by the interviewees themselves. They are non-professional performers, many of whom have never spoken publicly about their experiences.
For Brooklyn ’63, Ping Chong + Company was asked to develop a piece that would chronicle and explore the impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Brooklyn, specifically the events leading up to and following from the year 1963, the year of such events as the March on Washington and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The goal was to identify living activists, witnesses and inheritors of the legacy of civil rights and social justice in Brooklyn. These participants would then become the performers in the final piece, telling their unique personal and family stories.
Are the Brooklyn activists from the ‘60s still around and involved in the community?
We describe our cast as the activists, witnesses and inheritors of the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in Brooklyn. The script is based on the lives of the cast members and is performed by them.
Two of our elder cast members, Elinor Barr and Sam Pinn, were directly involved in a number of activities in the early 60’s including work with Brooklyn CORE, the Downstate Medical Center protests and later events that surrounded the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike. Pinn was a founding member of the Black United Front and the Fort Greene Senior Citizens Council and is currently the Executive Producer of Jazz 966, a community based jazz series in Brooklyn.
Stan Kinard, a young activist, was greatly inspired by activities at the East, as well as Clyde Deloris Herring. This led to multiple political actions and involvements in the late 60’s and the 70’s. Kinard is the Founder and Executive Director of the Carter G. Woodson Cultural Literacy Project at Boys and Girls High, as well as an impactful politician and activist.
Lourdes Lebron became very active in housing issues, school actions and protests that led the way for child care providers to unionize. She is still very active in issues concerning improving schools.
Patrick Dougher, the youngest member of the group, was directly impacted as a child by school bussing and currently works with youth in the community. Kinard, Pinn, Lebron and Dougher remain very active and involved in their Brooklyn communities. Herring and Barr no longer reside in Brooklyn.
What has been the most challenging aspect of coordinating this performance – whether logistical or artistic?
Ping Chong + Company has a twenty year history of developing Undesirable Elements projects around the country and internationally. To date, over 50 original productions have been created. The challenges always involve identifying the right people to tell their stories and choosing from the countless stories collected from the interviews.
We often say that we could return to a community again and again and discover six new relevant stories to tell; the potential is almost endless. With a project that is trying to specifically address the Civil Rights Movement, it was important for us to not enter in with an agenda or a preconceived idea of what the stories would be. The goal is to remain open and to let the stories reveal themselves to us. In that way, we are able to develop a more honest and relevant production.
What do you hope your audience gains or experiences?
Having already had a very successful run as part of 651Arts Movement’63 season, our goal is to reach an even broader audience and to attract more people who didn’t get a chance to see the production. Often these projects have a future life because they carry important history about a place, shedding light on a forgotten past.
There is particular hope that this piece will reach student groups and young people, many of whom are unaware of the important history of Civil Rights that emerged out of their own communities and the role models for social action that still remain in their midst. We hope that our audiences come to learn more about the history of their communities and discover more about the diversity and common ground among different groups.
Brooklyn ’63 first premiered a day after the Brooklyn community lost a very important activist and pioneer, Brother Jitu Weuisi. We dedicated the performances to his memory and it became a way to celebrate his life and the lives of many selfless activists. We hope that this performance will continue to have that resonance.
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“Brooklyn ’63” performances will take place on:
Tuesday, September 17th, 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Elohim $20
Thursday, September 19th, 7:30 p.m. at Billie Holiday Theatre/Bed-Stuy Restoration $20
Friday, September 20th, 7:30 p.m. at Brooklyn Historical Society $20