State of the Arts

S38 E4 | CLIP

Greensboro: A Requiem Community Reading

The McCarter Theatre travels to Greensboro, NC, for a community reading of Emily Mann’s 1996 play Greensboro: A Requiem on the 40th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre. State of the Arts is there for the reading of the documentary play, and its emotional reception by members of the victims community and more.

AIRED: January 25, 2020 | 0:10:24


Alekson: "Onscreen,

the play consists entirely of verbatim interview material,

courtroom transcripts, public record,

and personal testimony.

All of the plays' characters are real people.

In blackness, the company sings

'It's So Hard to Get Along,' a song of infinite sorrow.

Rose, a black woman in her 50s, leads."

Rose: ♪ It's so hard

All: ♪ To get along

Rose: ♪ My Lord, it's so hard

Alekson: Community play readings are a way

to have the opportunity to say the words.

All: ♪ It's so hard

Alekson: Both the thoughtful and meaningful words

and the violent and disturbing words

that are said in the course of this play.

To engage with those words helps us to better understand

the event itself.

Narrator: The event itself is the Greensboro Massacre,

a coordinated attack on protest marchers in 1979,

with aftershocks that continue to reverberate today.

Man: Come here. Help us.

Man: When all they brought to Greensboro on November 3rd

were long guns and semiautomatics...

Narrator: This community reading of Emily Mann's play

"Greensboro: A Requiem," was held during a weekend

marking the 40th anniversary of the massacre.

Woman: When the first trial opened,

we already knew that we were not gonna get any kind of justice.

Narrator: It's still a raw subject,

even in the town where the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins began,

and that's home to the International Civil Rights Museum.

What happened was this.

On November 3, 1979,

there was an Anti-Klan Protest March

led by members of the Communist Workers Party,

part of a pro-union movement at a local mill.

The Klan, joined by members of the American Nazi Party,

opened fire, and the police were nowhere to be found.

Five people died, and many more were injured.

Man: In 88 seconds, the Klan shot 13 people.

They killed five of them.

No Klansman was shot.

Johnson: All of the people who were killed were dear friends.

Sandi Lee Neely Smith was a best friend

and remains that in her spirit.

One of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life

was to call her mom to say that Sandi is dead.

Narrator: Playwright Emily Mann talked to people

on all sides of the event

and used their actual words in "Greensboro: A Requiem."

Mann: I just wanted to say it's one of the greatest honors

of my life to have been entrusted with this story,

and I want to thank all of the survivors

and the community for their belief in me

over all of these years of work.

And I hope that giving back to the community in this way

will be an act of healing.

Thank you.

Narrator: Emily is even a character in the play,

called "The Interviewer."

Woman: But how did he end up working

for the Greensboro Police?

Narrator: Here, The Interviewer is talking

to one of the organizers of the march, Nelson Johnson,

who's describing how one of the key instigators, Eddie Dawson,

worked with both the Klan and the Greensboro Police.

Lucky: Logically, it went to Dawson.

Woman: I see.

Lucky: So, you have to understand

he recruited, organized,

and led the Klan, fully armed, to Morningside Homes

while he was working for the Greensboro Police.

Woman: Wait.

Akan: This play was really an eye-opener for me

and really shook me to my core, as if the police and the Klan

really worked together to this depth.

I mean, we've always heard about that in the black community

that you really can't trust a cop,

but the depth of it presented in a theatrical form

really took me to another place.

Lucky: I was interrogated by the FBI

and the Greensboro Police.

Narrator: Nelson Johnson, played here by Miller Lucky Jr.,

is central to the play.

Nelson now fights for his community as a pastor

and as the Executive Director

of the beloved Community Center of Greensboro.

Lucky: They threatened to rip my bandages off.

The FBI agent whispered in my ear,

"Your life ain't worth a nickel in word."

Nelson: It's just a blessing to hear somebody present,

as best they can, a recently truthful narrative.

Lucky: I think people kind of pay attention a bit more

because it's a reading.

They're not caught up with the special effects

that might happen onstage.

So, when you strip all of that away,

you have nothing but the words.

And so, when you pay attention to the words, it's history.

It's a learning, you know?

Woman: You can't fight these city officials,

these politicians.

There ain't nothing you can do.

Narrator: Some would like to just forget

the Greensboro Massacre.

Even in Greensboro,

younger people may never have learned about the event.

Alvarez: I think growing up for me

was this very slow unfolding

of realizing that other people didn't know about this.

Narrator: César Alvarez was born the year after the massacre

and is named after one of the victims.

They're now a composer, lyricist, playwright,

and performance maker.

All: ♪ Once every spot of the universe ♪

Alvarez: What's cool about this play

was that it was one of the first pieces of theater I ever saw.

I saw it when I was 16,

and we took a road trip up to New Jersey,

to Princeton, to see the world premiere.

And at the time, it was a really surreal experience

to sort of see your community animated

on a stage by a bunch of strangers.

Narrator: In 2018, César, now a Princeton University

arts fellow, returned to the McCarter Theatre

for a community reading of Emily Mann's play,

"Greensboro: A Requiem."

Alekson: After the event ended, he said, "Wow, that was great.

That was so moving.

It would be so great if we could do this

in Greensboro for the 40th commemoration."

Alvarez: So, tonight I'm reading the role of a white supremacist,

which is terrifying.

Man: And you're proud you're a racist, aren't you?

Alvarez: Yes, sir.

I believe in the sovereign right to the sovereign people

of the sovereign states of the Confederacy

that has never surrendered.

Lee, the traitor, surrendered,

but not my Confederate government.

I believe that my country is occupied, and I will fight...

But also feels like something that could be a learning for me.

It could be a way in which I can kind of look

at a corner of this trauma

that I've never been able to look at,

to embody the story with my community around.

It feels like an incredible opportunity to heal.

Woman: Didn't you speak at a Klan rally in Lincolnton

and encourage them to seek revenge in Greensboro?

Kernodle: Now, I know where you're going.

Look, I was very cagey.

I always am.

And I never tell anybody to bring guns

or anything like that.

What I love about this play

is that it really casts an unflinching light

on the very perverted humanity of the folks

who are on the other side, the Klansmen, the Nazis.

I say "perverted humanity"

because their actions are evil and harmful,

and yet, they're still humans.

It captures that essential humanity

that we have to figure our way, muddle our way through,

and this play is a way of helping an audience do that.

Trouble with the Ku Klux Klan was coming up.

Mann: It's not edifying at all

if you just name someone a bad guy.

How did he become a bad guy?

Why is he a bad guy?

How can he continue doing that?

I mean, you cannot affect change --

and deep inside me, I'm an activist,

and I'm always looking into how you can make

the world a better place.

You can't make the world a better place

unless you understand, perhaps, who you might call your enemy.

Know your enemy. "Love thine enemy."

You should bring your enemies --

You know, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

You need to know the deeper workings of the other side.

Woman: The media in this country,

so many of them, Marxists...

Bermanzohn: Emily's a terrific interviewer,

and she got a lot of stuff out of a lot of people.

It's really -- It's a terrific piece of investigative work.

You know, the play actually reveals more about

Dawson than the trials did.

It's a positive comment about her play

and a very, very negative comment

about the US justice system.

Alvarez: Emily Mann went and took the initiative

to sort of make all of these interviews and investigations

and also to actually talk to the perpetrators

of the Greensboro Massacre and try to understand

what was the origination of this act.

And for us, then, to take those words

and those investigations and embody them on the stage

and as a community, to me,

feels like this incredibly magical healing act.

It means a lot to those of us that have lived with it

always to see it being remembered

and to see it being acknowledged.

Lucky: ...and sisters in a new community

on the other side!

On the other side!

All: ♪ We are soldiers

♪ In the army

♪ We have to fight

♪ Though some may have to die

♪ We got to hold up that blood-stained banner ♪

♪ We have to hold it up until we die ♪

[ Applause ]


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