COVID-19 Justice

COVID-19 gave Face Off Theatre Company pause. Public attention to the killing of Black Americans reinforced its purpose.

A theater company used the pandemic's stay-home time to explore ways to modernize the craft. Then George Floyd was killed.

The Face Off Theatre Company approached the isolating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to plan for the future, for finding new ways to update the live theater experience to secure new generations of fans.

That time of reflection was pierced by more police violence against Black Americans, sparking protests in Kalamazoo and throughout the country, underscoring the stories of the Black experience it has been telling since it opened in 2015.

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“This is not new for us. We’ve been talking about this. We have been. It’s the whole reason why we even exist,” said Artistic Director and founding member Marissa Harrington.

One of the company’s first shows, in January 2016, was “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hill, a re-imagining of the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Last summer, the company produced Denise Miller’s “A Ligature for Black Bodies,” about Black people being killed in the United States by police on camera without being brought to justice. Its script was heavy with biographical details of the victims and actual quotes from the police and autopsy reports.

Violence against Black people has endured for centuries. The most recent examples caught on video – the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25 and Ahmaud Arbery by residents of a Georgia neighborhood he was jogging in on Feb. 23 – continue to provide horrific fodder for artists.

“Our whole body of work has been this stuff. This is who we are and what we do. Everyone else is just waking up,” said Harrington.

Live theater during a pandemic

It would take more than the coronavirus, which disproportionately impacts Black people, to silence the Face Off Theatre Company, a program of Kalamazoo’s Black Arts and Cultural Center. A central purpose is to amplify the voices of Black playwrights and actors, which it has in dozens of productions since 2015.

Harrington said they took a step back to evaluate what would be most impactful to a community restricted by stay-at-home orders and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that are seemingly in conflict with live theater.

After multiple conversations internally and with other arts groups, the company decided to keep performing for a virtual audience.

“We’re a company that has always operated organically, and we are community based,” said Harrington. “Our advertising and momentum are normally social media based, so it made sense to do something on Facebook Live.”

The first of three virtual readings was held May 27, featuring Dawn Richberg’s “The Special Friend,” about a family struggling in the aftermath of a mother’s death. Despite the challenges of shifting to online performances, Face Off Theatre Company continued to prioritize audience engagement, this time in a question and answer session with Richberg. Questions and comments were posed via Facebook during the performance.

“A large part of acting is chemistry and vibing in person. It helped that we had already produced this play,” said Harrington.

But adapting to an online format raises new challenges for future play readings.

“We haven’t had to create this way, and we have to develop the specific technique. It’s something we’re going to have to work on and work through.”

The next virtual readings, scheduled for June 25 and July 23, may be accompanied by additional live, online events including a potential open mic night and other things more explicitly related to the Black Lives Matter movement, Harrington said.

The reflection goes beyond adapting art to the restrictions of a pandemic, Harrington said. It has provided time to look at the theater scene as a whole, in Kalamazoo and nationwide. The Facebook Live performances are just a start.

“It’s our time to do this and be a leader in the arts community in Kalamazoo and say ‘Look, this is what we do, this is what’s done, and this is how you respond,'” she said.

This includes examining both the format of performances and the content itself, to avoid  an audience feeling disconnected and ticket sales declining.

‘We’ve got to start becoming relevant’

As protestors rally in support of the Black Lives Matter mission, and police reply with violence, the issues that have been highlighted by the Face Off Theatre Company’s productions are now taking on mainstream acceptance in an art world historically dominated by white people.

“Some people think art is just supposed to entertain, and that’s valid. I think that we’ve been having these conversations about how viable theater is specifically and are we going to remain relevant,” Harrington said. “The generations coming up now, they don’t care about it. It’s outdated, it’s stale, a lot of the things are kind of racist and misogynistic.”

This puts more weight on her company’s mission, which began because “there’s literally a hole in the Kalamazoo theater scene, of works by Black folks, for Black folks, all year round,” Harrington said. It is also a reason for the art of theater to change.

Do you “entertain and you educate? Speak to social issues? I don’t know, but it has to look different. I challenge theater organizations to do things differently. We’ve got to start becoming relevant and part of that is not ignoring what’s going on in our world.” 

On June 2, after days of protests, suspicious house fires in Kalamazoo’s Northside and Edison neighborhoods, and aggressive police tactics deployed against protestors, the Face Off Theatre Company issued a “statement of deep concern” that effectively answered Harrington’s rhetorical questions and took up a challenge.

“Our art is our activism. Our voice is our power. Our fight is not done,” said the statement. “Will you fight with us?”

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