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'Black Lives, Black Words' Hopes To Spark Needed Race Discussions

Brandon Burnett and Janai Travis rehearse "Flood Gates" for the Kalamazoo Black Lives, Black Words event
Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

“Do black lives matter?” That’s the prompt that award-winning playwright and activist Reginald Edmund uses in the Black Lives, Black Words project. It’s a multi-city performance with theatre, poetry, and music about the black experience. On Sunday, February 18th, Western Michigan University and Face Off Theatre will put on Kalamazoo’s show. 

“I think it’s a very provocative way to form the question,” said Kendra Ann Flournoy, the curator of the event.

“We all innately know that black lives matter, but the fact of the matter is we live in a system where to be quite frank there are laws in place to make sure that people of color are disenfranchised.”

A poster for the event

Flournoy says the goal of this project is to create a dialogue that spurs change.

Kalamazoo’s performance will feature four poems, one essay, a song by Jordan Hamilton of the Kalamazoo band Last Gasp Collective, and three script-in-hand plays — including one by WMUK’s own Earlene McMichael.

Flournoy says her play "Flood Gates" is inspired by “Soul Snatchers” — a five-part exposé by civil rights columnist and activist Shaun King on the New York Police Department’s quota system led to illegal arrests. A police quota requires that officers make a specific number of arrests or tickets in a certain time frame.

“So I have it revolving around this African American officer who is in the dilemma of, ‘Will I adhere to the system or will I hold on to my integrity and my morals?’ — and that’s sort of where this lives," said Flournoy.

"And we also sort of get to see both sides. We get to see it from the officer’s standpoint and we also get to see the family that it impacts.”

Marcus Perez-Brennan plays Monty, a teen who gets arrested as part of the quota.

“Very often people forget that theatre is just like broadcasting real life in a new way, in a new light. And this is what we’re kind of doing. So it’s kind of cool to be a part of something as real as this is,” he said.

Western student Asia Dixon is directing two pieces in the event, including this one. She says it’s only her second time as a director.

“I like to call it a labor of love because I’m doing work that I’ve been waiting to do — with people who look like me, who have the same issues as me and can relate to me," she said. "That’s been the biggest reward out of having to work so very, very hard.”

Face Off Theatre co-founder Janai Travis is also a Western alum. She says she’s proud of the university.

“To see new works unapologetically being done with people of color is beautiful and it’s refreshing. And I’m just really excited that there has been some room made for these type of opportunities and these stories to be told,” she said. 

Black Lives, Black Words project creator Reginald Edmund has made an anthology of some of the works produced. Curator Flournoy says she would love to see the works from Kalamazoo included.

“But we aren’t really sure. I would hope that all of the artists involved will continue to do performances throughout the community, allow these pieces to live and just not exist on February 18th,” she said. 

Rebecca Thiele was an environmental reporter and producer of Arts & More for WMUK. She worked at the station from 2011 to 2019.
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