Waiting for Gun & Powder to begin, I was surrounded. To my left, a middle-aged couple, both white, very quiet. To my right, a younger couple, both male. Behind me, three African American friends, two male and one female. I release my breath a little. At least We are here. Scattered scantily around Signature Theatre’s black box theatre, We are here. And in front of me, the stage. There is very little on it, save for a two-story platform.
Up to this point, Gun & Powder had been a series of backstage and opening night chats with friends. Having seen, worked with, and admired so many of them, I set my hopes high for this production. Written by Angelica Chéri, with music by Ross Baum, Gun & Powder tells the story of Chéri’s relatives, the sisters Clarke. Inspired by their true story, these sisters manifest themselves into “notorious outlaws who [rule] the Wild West.” Daughters of a newly emancipated sharecropping mother, and a father who left before the girls were born, Martha (Emmy Raver-Lampman) and Mary (Solea Pfeiffer) set off to free their mother of a debt imposed upon her by the “master” who “owns” the land on which their family resides. I put master and landowner in quotes because: 1. Earth, and her children, has no master and 2. White people have not ever, do not, and will not ever own the land that makes up Turtle Island. All of us non-descendant from the indigenous populations of this land (myself included) are unwelcomed houseguests biding our time. But I digress.
Gracing the pages of the program are Awa Sal Secka (Signature’s Jesus Christ Superstar), Christopher Michael Richardson (Signature’s Assassins), Kanysha Williams (Signature’s Soul Divas), and other home-town heroes of Arlington stages. There are also new faces, Rayshun LaMarr (NBC’s The Voice), Amber Lenell Jones (Constellation Theatre Company’s AIDA). All Black. All lending themselves fully and deeply to this story.
There is a history, with history plays, to feature the white body as lead, leaving Us only to witness ourselves in regurgitation of trauma and violence, if we are even given room to share our stories at all.
This is where Gun & Powder brings a new breath to the atmosphere. Chéri’s writing, and masterful direction from the legendary Robert O’Hara (Broadway’s Slave Play), looks to open the way for Black and Brown folks to reimagine history plays. With all the fear, joy, anger, love, and magic that they possess. This fact becomes abundantly clear, as the musical sets forth, and our Kinfolk—the griot chorus of Black actors–lead us through the ebb and flow of the sister Clarke’s adventures. While I was prepared to receive the blessings of powerhouse voices in Raver-Lampman and Pfeiffer, and all seven Kinfolk actors, what I did not expect was just how unapologetic their Black bodies would be, taking up space on this stage.
Gun & Powder closes February 25, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
If you have ever seen Gone with the Wind, Oklahoma! (prior to the 2019 Broadway revival), Showboat or any other story foundational to the western canon, you—hopefully—have noticed just how quiet the Black characters are. And I mean this to include lack of lines, yes, and also to include a means by which Black characters are invited to live in the truth of a time where their bodies were routinely and systemically silenced by daily social and government-sponsored terrorism. You—hopefully—have acknowledged how the actor playing this role has been made to watch someone else’s story play out on stage, and fill in the gaps of their own story’s telling with as much life as is possible off the page.
I tell you this to preface how profound it was to witness Sissy (Yvette Monique Clarke) and Flo (Awa Sal Secka)—two housekeepers–remain on stage as all marquee characters exited through the center platform, leaving the two of them alone.
The moment made history for me. Two Black characters, stereotypically made to stand silently and witness, suddenly chat in the most nonchalant manner about the mysterious sisters who now live in their home, and what giveaways they noticed to signs that these outlaws are actually Black women passing for White. I sat forward, cackling at all their mannerisms, watching them deliver punch line after punch line seamlessly. It was like watching two best friends read the new girls in town for filth. I’ve seen it in my living room, on modern tv, and now was watching it happen for the first time on stage. And by two maid servants nonetheless. It was Shakespearean, but it wasn’t. Because it was all Us. By the end of their cameos, the entire audience was eating out of the palms of their hands—or in Flo’s case—a casually placed and perfectly irrelevant bowl of uneaten fruit.
As I looked and listened around me, I watched my fellow Black and Brown audience members unfolding, relaxing into the play, expanding their presence as they laughed, “mmed,” cried, and audibly affirmed the adventure we all were undertaking. Seeing themselves for the first time in this new and ancient way.
We were here, for real. And We were taking back the house, as Sissy, Flo, Kinfolk, and the sister’s Clarke took back the stage and the story.
Now usually, I am a pretty audible audience member. I believe it is the duty of the audience as witness to be in respectful conversation with the storytelling. To balance out the exchange. Otherwise actors, musicians, and audience suffer in the silence of a passive house. We are not ghosts, though even they sometimes make a little noise. But Gun & Powder’s kinfolk witnesses in the audience took it to another level. Were at a ceremony. It became clear that we were taking a stand: we would be heard, we would be felt, and the Brown bodies going through this journey had allies in Us. I was, we were, proud to be amongst them.
By the end of our journey together we were united. The line between spectator and spectacle blurred to the point where folks began to clap and stomp, and call out from all sides. We created a community to encapsulate this moment, and we were surrounded.
As the cast poured onto the stage in their final number, ringing out “it’s in the blood,” I knew that we had all experienced the reclamation. The story was Chéri’s, translated by O’Hara, carried by the kinfolk, and returned to Us in the audience. The ceremony completed and there was a moment of stillness, while the audience let the truth wash over them.
It could be like this every time, I thought. We could be this big every single time. And why shouldn’t We be?