As we moved into the final days of rehearsal for Mr. Joy, I suddenly realized I have been presenting Daniel Beaty’s work over a span of ten years at this point. When I first worked with him, we were presenting Emergency at Arena Stage. In that piece, Daniel was trying to call attention, through poetry and performance, to a state of emergency for young black and latino men.
In Emergency, the call to attention and action is issued by a young man, a slam poet, in a poem called The Bones:
“Hope, hope, hope…
like a ray of light
exploded in the depths of me
And BANG!/It’s waking me up”.
The speaker at this point is in his twenties, as was Daniel when he wrote it. The poem ends
“Our bones, our bones, our bones they breathe:
We are the essence of liberty!
We are the breath of divinity!
We are all family!
We must not die!
We must not sleep!
We must wake up!
Wake up and DREAM!”
Just a few years later, in a piece called Resurrection, that poet’s generation is represented by ‘Dre, now almost 30 and a statistic: on drugs and in jail. And right behind him, comes another young man, about to graduate high school with hopes of heading to college. He steps into the spotlight to issue the call. He calls his poem “Run, Black Man, Run”. Again he asks us to feel the urgency in the emergency. It’s too late for ‘Dre. We did not wake up in time. But, says the poet, there will only be more lost boys if we don’t hear him now. That was 2009. And though audiences continued to applaud Daniel’s performances, we did not wake up.
Now in Mr. Joy, a few years further on, the call comes from another voice, 15-year-old DeShawn. ‘Dre is released from prison into a dead end. DeShawn writes his own call to action, in a poem he calls A Black Boy Speaks, and this time the poet says
“All of a sudden
just out of nowhere
an entire generation of lost black boys?
The systematic destruction of a people is loud
It makes NOISE!”
and he closes
“A Black Boy speaks.
Will you hear my cry?
Or continue to live your life
While day after day
This time, we witness the moment when it’s too late for DeShawn. We are present as he slips from our grasp.
Through all of these pieces, there’s the consistent presence of a ten-year-old boy. In both Emergency and Mr. Joy his name is Peter. In Emergency he was a bit of an observer and a sign that there was hope. Now, in Mr. Joy, Peter stands in the center of the stage at the end of the night and you can feel that he’s staring into his future as it bears down on him and leaning on us to react to the urgency of the emergency. “Maybe, just maybe, the darkness of our night has been so long, it’s time for the light of day?”
It’s been an amazing and heartbreaking journey, this work with Daniel. To watch his characters call for us to wake up, year after year, poem after poem, and to see them each slip from sight in the wake of our collective indifference. And to see Peter, still standing in hope of a rescue, as the waters rise around him.
These past couple of years we’ve been working at Emerson College with Daniel’s I DREAM project as a way to break past the safety of the footlights and the applause and into the kind of action his plays have been calling for all along. With the run of Mr. Joy, we will welcome into the theater over one hundred people across the city who are participating. Some amazing teaching artists, activists, organizers and neighbors committed to heeding the call. We’re operating from the premise that civic transformation begins with personal transformation and we’re each on a journey to “wake up and DREAM”, to hear the poet’s cry.
I am so glad to be doing this work. I hope people in Boston will see it and feel it and be moved to join in . I hope you will help us by seeing Mr. Joy and letting your networks know of your experience.
ArtsEmerson presents MR. JOY, written by Daniel Beaty, directed by David Dower, starring Tangela Large. Playing Sept 22 – Oct 18 at the Emerson/Jackie Liebergott Black Box. Tickets and information at artsemerson.org.