NEW YORK – (MintPress) – Trayvon Martin would have turned 18 this month. Instead, his family is mourning the one-year anniversary of his fatal shooting in Miami. It is a fitting time for staging a play about the teen’s life and death.
“Outcry,” written by 22-year-old playwright Thais Francis, is now showing at the newly-opened JACK theater and arts center in Brooklyn, the New York City borough the Trinidad and Tobago native calls home — and one that has been strongly affected by racially-motivated violence.
“The play was a visceral response to his death. I wrote it a week later after I processed it,” she tells Mint Press News before quickly correcting herself. “Actually, I’m still processing. I can’t wrap my mind around it.”
Indeed, “Outcry” poses the question: “What happens when you scream, but no one hears?” It intertwines Martin’s life with those of three other young Black men who have suffered a similar fate and their loved ones.
In doing so, “Outcry” also pays homage to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was murdered in 1955 during a visit to relatives in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a young White woman; Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea who was shot and killed by four NYPD officers in the Bronx in 1999; and Sean Bell , who in 2006 was gunned down by a team of plainclothes and undercover cops in Queens on the morning before his wedding.
The play is set inside the nightmare of Nicole Paultre Bell, Sean’s fiance, with whom he had two young daughters at the time of his death. It also introduces Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother.
The characters, all wearing black, interact through dialogue and song to explore the idea of screaming and not being heard, which is depicted as the equivalent of crying out against injustice and being ignored.
“After all of these incidents happened, there were public protests and then everything fizzled out. And the police, none of them were charged, and I saw the same thing. People would protest and then forget and let it slide and then it happens again.”
As for George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin, Francis says, “The evidence is blatant, and he should be in jail already.”
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to the charge and is currently out on a $1 million bond while he awaits trial; he has requested a hearing under the “stand your ground” law provisions. In October 2012, Judge Debra S. Nelson set Zimmerman’s trial date for June 10, 2013.
Making a difference
Francis moved to the United States at the age of 10 when her parents decided to seek new opportunities and to pursue the American dream. She is still reaping the benefits. “I’m fearless, and whatever I want is for the taking,” she states.
In 2012, Francis graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she received her BFA in Drama.
In addition to being a playwright, she is an actor, dancer, singer and instrumentalist. She has performed at the Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, the National Black Theater Festival and the Historic Warner Theater, and has toured internationally with the play “Da Kink in my Hair.”
Francis’ writings have been featured at various conferences, symposiums and universities nationwide, including the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University and the Congressional Black Caucus.
She was the 1st place winner of the 5th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Week Essay Contest, “Who will Inspire You to Dream?”
In her piece, “His Legacy Paves my Path,” Francis wrote, “Dr. King once said, ‘An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concern to the broader concerns of all humanity.’”
She continued, “This quote resonates with me and causes me to realize that not raising awareness or speaking about the problems occurring in Africa and the Caribbean is a form of agreement on my part … Therefore, I am dedicating my life and artistry to creating social change … as a result of the legacy and inspiration of Dr. King.”
“I know that in order to create actual change in society I need to work indefatigably,” Francis concluded. “I owe it not only to myself but to Dr. King and the people who need a voice and can’t seem to hear their own.”
As for the impact of “Outcry,” she said. “There has been a very positive response …You would think the audience would be only African-American, but it is extremely diverse.”
Brooklyn’s racist record
The director of “Outcry,” Alec Duffy, said Francis’ work is powerfully relevant to the times, as people in Brooklyn are dealing with racial profiling every day.
Case in point, coinciding with the opening of the play was a new NYPD report confirming what many Brooklyn residents already knew: The police department’s stop-and-frisk program is going strong there.
According to the report, “Reasonable Suspicion Stops,” more people, most of them minorities, were stopped in two Brooklyn precincts — covering East New York, Brownsville and Crown Heights — than anywhere else in the city in 2011.
A total number of 685,724 people, about 8.6 percent of the city’s population, were detained by the NYPD for “reasonable suspicion” that year, according to the report. The two precincts with the most stops by sheer numbers were both in Brooklyn, and more than 95 percent of the stops involved minorities.
“It’s not illegal, it’s just wrong,” said 36-year-old carpenter Yusef Mason, who claimed that he gets stopped on average two or three times a day. “They are not here just in case something happens; they are here to make a case. They are rough and disrespectful. They do things to push you,” he continued.
“These are the tactics they use, but also are things that people have to deal with in everyday life.”
In Brownsville, where Mason has lived all his life, 25,167 people were stopped and checked in 2011, the report found, and roughly 98 percent of them were minorities.
“We’re constantly accused, unfairly, of racism, like we’re looking only to stop minorities. That is not true,” argued NYPD spokesman Paul Browne after the report was released.
“Are there more stops in East New York than in Riverdale? Yes. Why? Because there is more crime there and because we put more resources into that precinct,” he added.
“It doesn’t really matter where you are,” maintained Mason. “It’s a target issue. If you go by the statistics of any other neighborhood, the people that have been stopped would still be the minorities.”
Playwright Francis says she hopes her play can reach young men like Mason, whose last name could be Martin. “I want them to see a reflection of themselves and to know their worth and know they should be targeted,” she said.
“We can’t turn a blind eye to the fact these things are still happening 57 years later,” she says, referring to the murder of Emmett Hill. “If we don’t cry out, it will happen again and again. I want the memory of individuals to remain so we can change society.”