Billingslea shares a million reasons to support Black theatre through the Juneteenth Justice Theatre Project

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure.” – Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2

It all started as a family road trip in July of 2019 with some friends and a play script.

What that trip ultimately inspired is the Juneteenth Justice Theatre Project, a massive Zoom reading taking place tonight, Friday, June 19, sponsored by more than 30 Bay Area theatres and utilizing some of the best acting talents in the region. The key component of the project is a Go Fund Me to raise one million dollars for Black theatre projects throughout the country.

The project is spearheaded by San Francisco play incubator PlayGround, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Planet Earth Arts, but Bay Area actor, director and Santa Clara University professor Aldo Billingslea found that more theatres participating was just a phone call away. More than 30 Bay Area theatres signed on to participate, and cities in nearly a dozen other regions including Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Tampa, San Diego, and Albany, New York are staging readings with their own local talent.

Billingslea hopped into the passenger’s seat on that road trip nearly a year ago with his wife, daughter and some friends, heading to Nebraska from South Dakota. He had a copy of Vincent Terrell Durham’s “Polar Bars, Black Boys and Prairie Fringed Orchids,” to pore over, but six pages in, radios were shut off and he demanded to be heard, reading the script out loud to the vehicle’s inhabitants, who quickly became enraptured by the play.

“We drove, testified, drove some more and howled with laughter, signifying our approval of the script with ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘mmms’ all the way to Omaha,” said Billingslea, who is leading and producing the project.

Vincent-Terrell-Durham-scaled
Vincent Terrell Durham’s “Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids” will receive a livestreamed Zoom reading on Friday, June 19, co-presented by more than 30 Bay Area theatres as part of the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project. (Playground photo)

Durham’s play, along with the themes that explode from the script could not have been timelier. Gentrification, white fragility, the sustainability of the planet, the Black Lives Matter movement, and police violence against Black bodies are just some of the issues raised in the play.

Big plans were had for the script, with hopes that involved full productions and readings at multiple theatres, including some potential events with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. But as theatres began to shut their doors due to the Coronavirus pandemic in March, all those opportunities dried up.

Then came May 25.

On this day, the nation watched with sickened horror as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin drove his knee into the neck of George Floyd, 46, for eight minutes and 46 seconds outside of a grocery store, detained by force for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. As Chauvin showed no desires to let up even though Floyd pleaded for breath and his mother, three officers stood by while bystanders begged for them to spare Floyd’s life. All four officers were fired and arrested, and Chauvin was charged with second degree murder.

Floyd’s murder set off outrage throughout the world, as protests and rage came swiftly. In addition to Floyd, recent murders at the hands of law enforcement (Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks) and murders by vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery) set off a movement which has brought a renewed emphasis and urgency to the truth that “Black Lives Matter.”

No corner of society has been spared of the overdue examination as to how Black bodies and lives are devalued. Artists have powerfully shoved their way to the table of inequity, with theatre companies forced to examine everything about how they operate, from the lack of diversity in a company’s leadership structure to hiring practices that dismiss Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) artists.

Billingslea admits to not being at his best self when he’s not on a stage. Rest is not as easy these days, and as he readies to enter the longest stretch of his theatre life without acting in a production, it makes him a little anxious. This fundraiser and the chance to raise money for Black theatre projects, to respond to these injustices the way he knows how – through art – has given him a renewed vigor. He has helped to establish a committee to distribute funds, and that process includes smaller companies who are often on the outside looking in when it comes to funding their projects.

Having plenty of capital to disperse is a critical next step.

“If you’re a Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in the Bay Area or a Robey Theatre Company in Los Angeles, you don’t have to put on a dog and pony show to access funds.”

Billingslea is bullish when it comes to what he believes is the purpose of art in times such as these, flawlessly reeling off the quote from Hamlet, stated above. It was a lesson hammered home by legendary theatre performer Anna Deavere Smith who visited Santa Clara University not long after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, an event that devastated many of Billingslea’s students.

“When she came through Santa Clara, she told the students that this is not a time to wallow in wounds. This is what artists are made for, moments like these,” said Billingslea. “I have been teaching that lesson to my students and colleagues since – flip the script. I am energized, mobilized and ready to be immunized.

“This is what we do.”

WHAT TO KNOW

Playground in partnership with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Planet Earth Arts and 30 Bay Area theatres present “Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids”
Juneteenth Justice Theatre Project
A Livestreamed Zoom Reading
Friday, June 19 – 7 PM
Purchase tickets here
Donate to support Black theatre initiatives throughout the country
Presented by: Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, PlayGround, Planet Earth Arts, African-American Shakespeare Company, American Conservatory Theater, Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cal Shakes, Center Rep, Central Works, City Lights Theater Company, Crowded Fire, Custom Made Theatre Company, Cutting Ball Theater, Golden Thread Productions, Hillbarn Theatre, Livermore Shakespeare Festival, Magic Theatre, Marin Shakespeare Company, Marin Theatre Company, Mountain Community Theater, National Center for New Plays, New Conservatory Theatre Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Pear Theatre, Perspective Theatre, San Francisco Playhouse, San Jose Stage, San Francisco Mime Troupe, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Santa Cruz County Actor’s Theatre, Santa Cruz Shakespeare, SFBATCO, Shotgun Players, Silicon Valley Shakespeare, Stanford Repertory Theater, TheatreFIRST, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Town Hall Theatre, and Utopia Theatre Project.

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