More than 150 people came together Oct. 1 following an afternoon performance of Detroit ’67 by PlayMakers Repertory Company for a Carolina Conversation on racial tension and social unrest.
The idea for the discussion, “Detroit ’67 to Charlotte ’16,” grew out of the eerie parallels between the play and the recent shootings of black men in Charlotte, Tulsa and elsewhere.
“I knew we needed to encourage as many people here at UNC not only to see the production, but to use it as a springboard for going deeper into conversation,” said Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers.
Carolina Conversations are events designed to facilitate discussion among students, faculty, staff and members of the community on difficult topics. The Oct. 1 event was sponsored by PlayMakers, the Office of the Chancellor and the College of Arts and Sciences.
In her introduction, Senior Associate Dean for Fine Arts and Humanities Terry Rhodes noted, “Detroit ’67 and this Carolina Conversation directly touch on two of the themes — social justice and tolerance and understanding” of the recently launched Carolina’s Human Heart initiative on living the arts and humanities.
The four panelists for the discussion were Philip Meyer, professor emeritus of journalism for the School of Media and Journalism, who covered the 1967 unrest for the Detroit Free Press; Perry Hall, associate professor in the department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies and a Detroit native; Ariana Rivens, a psychology major with minors in dramatic art and social and economic justice; and Brandon Yelverton, a political science and sociology major and EmBrACE chair at Black Student Movement, one of the largest student organizations on campus.
Both Meyer and Hall discussed what it felt like to be in Detroit in 1967 when violence erupted.
“I saw the looting of a grocery store, and it all seemed so foreign to me, because things were getting better,” said Hall, describing the social and economic climate of the city three years after passage of the Civil Rights Act. “It took me years to figure out that things were getting better for me, but they weren’t getting better for the people looting the grocery store.”
One audience member, addressing the panelists, noted that although social media had been an important tool in bringing to light the police shootings, she felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of negative images.
“It’s tearing out my soul,” she said.
Rivens could relate to her problem, responding that she read self-care articles online and found writing poetry to be therapeutic in countering all the negativity. “I’m working through that problem of wanting to be informed and engaged, but did have to take a step back,” she said.
When a high school student asked what she could do to help contribute to racial equality, Yelverton had several suggestions. “Be an ally. Actively listen. Don’t let fear strangle the desire to help,” he said. “If you see things that are troubling, maybe in your home space or with your friend groups, make sure to challenge the idea of that person.”
Talking about issues of race and discrimination “can be really messy,” moderator Jacqueline Lawton, assistant professor of dramatic art and dramaturg of the play, told the audience.
“We don’t always remember the difference between individual behavior and institutional practices,” she said. “An individual can take part in discriminatory institutional practices, but can also disrupt them. Your being here today is part of that disruption.”
By Geneva Collins, College of Arts and Sciences