When Out of Hand Theater convenes its latest conversation on race and equity this Sunday, the evening will begin with two minutes and 23 seconds of silence in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Brunswick man killed in February while jogging in his neighborhood.
The theater company thought about focusing exclusively on Arbery’s story and racial violence but decided to stick to its schedule, says artistic director Ariel Fristoe. Equitable Dinners Atlanta likely will focus on violence and lynching sometime in the fall.
You might know Out of Hand from its in-home shows (Shaking the Wind, Conceal and Carry), its early days of interactive theater (Cartoon) and, most recently, its pivot to social justice and civic engagement work. Last August’s inaugural Decatur Dinners, for instance, featured 120 dinner conversations in homes, community centers and houses of worship for 1,200 participants. Covid-19 has chased the last two discussions — public health in April, food insecurity on Sunday — to a Zoom room.
Each free live virtual conversation begins with a play on that evening’s topic. Participants then hear from an expert who provides context and, finally, they break into groups of eight to 10 people each so neighbors and strangers can connect with each other. The virtual events — officially called Equitable Dinners Atlanta: Lift Every Voice — are scheduled monthly at least through September. To attend virtually, visit equitabledinners.com.
Why race and equity?
Ariel Fristoe and husband Adam, both Out of Hand cofounders, live in a historically black neighborhood and send their daughter to Hope-Hill Elementary School. When she began its Pre-K program, she was the only white student in the school. “We love that school,” Ariel Fristoe says, “and it was eye-opening.”
That year, Hope-Hill’s PTA had a budget of about $400, Fristoe says. Mary Linn Elementary, the predominantly white school a few miles away, had a PTA budget of more than $100,000.
“Segregation is real,” Fristoe says. “Structural racism is real. Many white people, like me, have had the privilege of being oblivious to it. And it is our duty to turn that around, and to use our white privilege for good, to help create a cultural shift, where innocent black men and women don’t get gunned down for nothing, and where all children have a chance to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves.”
There’s another reason, too.
“Theater has the power to open hearts and minds,” Fristoe says, “to turn strangers into friends, but only if you harness that power by building conversation and communion into our events.”
When The New York Times talked to Fristoe for a March piece, it quoted her as saying: “It takes just a small perspective shift to use theatrical skills to create a more just world. I’m shocked at how well it works. But you have to harness that power by pairing it with an opportunity for those things to catch fire.”
April’s Equitable Dinner put about 184 people on a single Zoom call. Adria Kitchens, Out of Hand’s Equitable Dinners manager, welcomed them, assuring all comers that they were in a “completely safe space” and to “enjoy the evening.”
“We are in a time when human solidarity has never been more important,” Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, told them.
Then came Take My Breath Away, a 15-minute piece about racism’s impact on health, especially in a time of Covid-19. It was written by Atlanta playwright Gabrielle Fulton and performed by Atlanta actor Danielle Deadwyler, who dressed in red against a red background, her eyes penetrating, her words accusatory. The character struggled for breath, deteriorating over time and eventually revealing she was the lungs inside the body of a Covid-19 victim.
Camara Phyllis Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and medical anthropologist, provided context before the breakouts happened. Each time, Zoom roomers are asked simply, “What came up for you?” and eventually asked to choose and commit to one act they can take personally.” Out of Hand follows up with phone calls — to each person.
“It is an amazing privilege for me, as an artistic director, to be able to help my community respond this fast through art,” Fristoe says. “It is the closest that the artistic director of a theater can be to being like a Saturday Night Live producer. While I would never wish this [Covid-19] situation on the world, and I’ll be really glad when it’s over, this is a way theater can be vital to the community and to the conversations that we really need to have right now.”
Health equity is such a hot topic, Fristoe says, that Out of Hand has received calls from elected leaders asking for another version of the same event. That will happen May 31.
“The thing that struck me most,” Fristoe says, “was black women talking about how they had not considered the stresses they’re constantly under because they are black.”
Sunday’s short play, by Atlanta writer Amina McIntyre, will feature Atlanta actor Mia Kristin Smith canning fruit as she talks. “It’s a play about how to feed yourself and your kids when you have very little money and live in the middle of the city,” says Fristoe. It talks about food deserts, the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, and “how black citizens deal with diabetes and obesity issues that white people don’t.”
More and more civic organizations are coming on as partners. Equitable Dinners Atlanta and the Lift Every Voice series is a collaboration with such community partners as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, The King Center, Both And Partners, Civic Dinners, Atlanta Public Schools, Atlanta Housing Authority, Compassionate Atlanta, Taproot, the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition and the Urban League of Greater Atlanta. They provide support, experts and word-of-mouth. MailChimp is helping foot the bill.
Equitable Dinners are free for participants, but they cost Out of Hand roughly $25 per person per event. Playwrights and performers are paid. Facilitators are volunteers.
Susan Pavlin of Taproot, who’s worked with community farms to feed the hungry for 20 years, will be on hand Sunday to offer context.
“The structure of Equitable Dinners gives some strong possibility of the constructive and human-centered conversation that is critical to exploring these issues in a way that isn’t just about outrage and anger,” she says. “There’s a little bit of magic in the way it all comes together.”
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