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We Were There: When We Wake Up Dead

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Broadway Black had the wonderful honor of attending the world premiere of Dennis A. Allen II‘s When We Wake Up Dead at Brooklyn College over the weekend, and what a treat it was. If you don’t know his name yet, you will know it soon. Brooklyn College had the privilege to premiere the first staged production of his brilliant play which tackles mental illness in the black community, while addressing the tropes of the strong black woman and hyper-masculinity.

The first character we meet is the young Emory Hill (Shomari Pinnock), and from the beginning we can tell something is quite off with him. The first few minutes of the play are him moving in silence, turning lights on as he moves through various rooms. There is a voiceover however (his father), and it almost seems that this voice is what Emory is replaying in this mind and is what leads him to his (spoiler alert) eventual suicide attempt. Yes, this play goes there in the first ten minutes.

This suicide attempt sets the tone for the entire show essentially. His twin cousins Bryant and James (Lorenzo Cromwell and Chakeefe Gordon), who find him in the bathroom, try to understand Emory, but do so in different ways. While Bryant is the more sensitive one who treads carefully regarding Emory’s obvious mental issues (he’s tried to commit suicide more than once, he’s on anti-depressants), James calls him a “disgrace to the race” and his attempt is nothing more than a “cry for attention.” That ideology is something that is quite common in the black community. The idea of admitting that there is something mentally wrong with a family member, and in this case particularly a black man, is seen as a weakness. It’s that same mindset that makes these situations even more harmful. Instead of getting family members the help they deserve they are driven further off the cliff.

Is James really to blame though? There is a moment where he’s retelling a story to his Aunt Cheryl (brilliantly played by Jacqueline Springfield) about the time he got into a fight with some white boys and his Uncle Cecil (Michael Gaines) made him go back and fight them till he won. When he couldn’t complete the task his Uncle took his belt off and gave him a beating. From early on this idea of hyper-mascuailty has been embedded into James mindset, so naturally it’s something he stuck with over the course of the years. His treatment of Emory then makes sense, but it doesn’t make it right.

Over the course of the play Emory’s condition clearly isn’t getting any better and it doesn’t help that Cecil’s health is deteriorating. “It’s always death that brings about change in the world,” says the dying Uncle Cecil and that line pieces the entire play together. Cecil’s death sets in motion many events that change the families lives and world forever. It’s their uncle’s death that brings all of the family together including Cheryl’s younger sister Lynn (Kristin Fulton) and even more family secrets are spilled that call into question everything they knew, or thought they knew. In light of the recent revelations, many of the characters come beautifully and heartbreakingly undone.

All of this a testament to Allen’s superb writing as he gives each character depth, even the ones that aren’t so nice. These characters are so well written and layered it’s hard not to feel for them, all of them. I think the most haunting moment for me comes at the end, when Emory and James have a falling out, a moment where the words coming out of Emory’s mouth are so uncomfortable, I had to cover my mouth and shake my head. This show wasn’t afraid to dig deep and put such an important topic on display. Mental illness isn’t funny, it isn’t a joke, and it does affect us no matter how blind to it we may be to it. It’s something that needs to be addressed in all communities and I’m glad Dennis shed light on it the way it deserved to be.

When We Wake Up Dead was written by Dennis A. Allen II and directed by Christopher Burris. It is running until March 23rd at Brooklyn Center For The Performing Arts at Brooklyn College (2900 Avenue H Brooklyn, NY 11210). Tickets can be purchased here.

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Award Nominations

Cynthia Erivo Nominated for BAFTA’s Rising Star Award

Drew Shade

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Cynthia Erivo at Opening Night of the Color Purple. Photo by Drew Shade

Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Award-winning actress, Cynthia Erivo, known for her transformative performance as Celie in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple is now one of five actors nominated for the British Academy of Film’s 2019 Rising Star Awards.

Most recently seen alongside Viola Davis in Steve McQueen’s Widows, Erivo says:

“I’m ever grateful to BAFTA and the jury panel for nominating me for the 2019 EE Rising Star Award. It means the world to me to be acknowledged by the community that, for most of my life, I’ve known as home. Thank you for this incredible honour.” – Cynthia Erivo

The BAFTA Awards will take place on February 10th.

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Get Your War Clothes On: Billy Porter Energizes in GLAAD Acceptance Speech

Jerrica White

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billy porter

So, I have a question.

In the same line of thought as “innocent until proven guilty,” do we grant the assumption of positive intent in our expectations of our brothers and sister in regards to woke-ness, à la woke until proven problematic?

Now don’t get me wrong, there was no doubt in my heart that Tony and Grammy Award-winner, Billy Porter, was woke. Nope, none. What I wasn’t ready for, was the way he fixed his fingers to pen one of the greatest acceptance speeches of my lifetime, and how he turned the Gospel classic “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired” into a battle song.

The 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards honored Billy Porter with the Vito Russo Award, presented to an openly LGBTQ media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality and acceptance.

He started by affirming the room full of members of marginalized communities, with my personal daily mantra: “You are enough. we are enough.”

Since the beginning of time artists are the folks who engage critically and encourage those who think they are powerless to question the status quo.

Brothers and sisters across the room leaned in.

The days of shut up and sing are over.

Alliteration informed and illustrated as Porter preached on remaining “vigilantly visual” as we tell our stories. Acknowledging the reality of our times, he spoke on Number 45:

Where they slipped up this time is in that declaration of war. It’s not only against Black and Brown people and Queer people anymore, it’s against ALL of us. And as a result, the good news is: white folk, and straight folk, and all those fierce women folk, are mad now. And NOW maybe something might get done!

Get. Your. War. Clothes. On.

From slavery to emancipation, to the 13th Amendment, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights Movement. From Stonewall to AIDS, to marriage equality— we gotta remember the shoulders who we stand on—the ones who fought and died for those freedoms that we hold so dear. Let’s use these historical strides we’ve made as a nation to empower us as warriors on this battlefield of equality.

Amen.

Until we can figure out how to love one another unconditionally, no one wins. Freedom. Equality. Justice. Have always come at a cost and evidently the always will.

If that’s not the truth.

Stay strong. Stay vigilante. Stay visible. Stay hopeful. Stay focused. Be brave. Be fierce.

Resist.

RESIST.

RESIST.

RESIST.

For a full list of this year’s winners, honorees, and guests, visit GLAAD.

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