by Aarushi Agni
In collaboration with Theatre Lila, Milwaukee’s Bronzeville Arts ensemble will bring Aisha Rahman’s play, The Mojo and the Sayso, to the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall from February 18 – 21. The play depicts an African-American family’s experience after their 10-year-old son is shot by a white police officer.
A new context revitalizes Rahman’s message
Originally written in 1981, the play’s subject matter hits close to home in today’s political context. Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has fueled a national conversation about institutional racism, police brutality, racial profiling and what American citizenship feels like for Black Americans.
A major focus of the movement is the number of young, unarmed Black people who have died in police custody, including Mike Johnson, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. Their names and stories have become rallying points of the movement.
“What you see is a snapshot of the families that are left behind [in police shootings] and the communities that are left to pick up the pieces,” said Malkia Stampley, the show’s producer and Producing Artistic Director of Bronzeville Arts ensemble.
From Milwaukee to Madison
Directed by Jessica Lanius, The Mojo and the Sayso debuted at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre to an audience of over 1,100 people in one weekend and sold out performances.
“The community came out in droves. There was a lot of word of mouth,” said Stampley. “A lot of people weren’t able to come and see it. We’re hoping people will make the 90-mile drive to Madison to come see it.”
Across the state, institutional racism is a nagging issue. Local Black Lives Matter activists recently mobilized around the police shooting deaths of Tony Robinson in the Willy Street neighborhood in 2015 and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park.
Stampley said she looks forward to seeing Madison’s reaction to the work. In the Milwaukee production, the show was followed by talk-back sessions, where audience members are welcomed to share reactions and reflections with the cast.
The beauty of the play, said Stampley, is that it leaves the audience feeling “reflective” rather than angry.
“Usually, plays dealing with injustice—things that are happening in society that groups of us rally around—can tend to leave you upset or angry,” said Stampley. “But this production left them thinking what can I do? I didn’t think of it that way before.”
Elevating stories of Black experience through Theatre
The choice of the play was motivated by the desire to illuminate the Black experience in America through theatre— one of the missions of the Bronzeville Arts ensemble in Milwaukee. Stampley and her husband Chike Robinson, Milwaukee-based stage actors, are two of the eight founders of the ensemble, dedicated to elevating the work of playwrights and actors of color.
“Starting a theatre company will never make anyone rich, but we wanted to make sure we made it happen for Milwaukee’s sake, for Black art’s sake,” said Stampley, who does not yet earn a salary for her work for Bronzeville. “It’s definitely a labor of love. If not me, then who? We knew what we were getting ourselves into!”
Stampley said Milwaukee has a long way to go in terms of representation of people of color in theatre, and there is a need for theatre pieces that reflect the makeup of the local community.
To their credit, Stampley noted that Milwaukee theatre companies make an effort to adjust casting of classics like A Christmas Carol, to include actors of color.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in some great pieces that spark a lot of great dialogue, for younger audiences, great questions to think on,” said Stampley, who is also currently playing Madame Zeroni in First Stage’s production of Louis Sachar’s Holes.
“Theatre can be a tight circle, we found that in Chicago and New York, it takes that one theatre, one actor to welcome you in and embrace you,” reflected Stampley. “Now it’s our turn to embrace this next generation.”