When writer-actor-composer Daniel Beaty conjures the 25-plus characters he portrays in his provocative one-man show, Emergency, it's well to remember his riffs on the African-American experience are informed by his own life.
His award-winning play, which he performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, is a bold meditation on freedom. It imagines a slave ship rising out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York City. When this worst symbol of slavery rears its ugly head before our greatest symbol of freedom it throws into relief the inconvenient truth that liberty still eludes many African Americans.
"This is a metaphor for what stands in front of our freedom," Beaty says. "Emergency is an exploration of what it means to be free – free to love, free to have hope, free to find one's purpose and to live a life that's bold and fully expressed."
He says the ideas behind the show come from his own growing up as well as observations he made as a former New York City public schools arts educator, where every day reality contradicted America's promise of equal opportunity.
"Because of my own personal upbringing and life story I really saw myself reflected in the lives of so many of these young people dealing with similar issues of parents battling incarceration or addiction or poverty," he says. "It really clarified my purpose as a writer and performer to ask the questions, Why are we here? How can things be better? What world are we leaving for our children? It became clear to me the unhealed legacy of slavery is still impacting the hearts and minds of so many people. It goes back to the breakdown of the family that happened during slavery and our children not being told the story of our history in this country and not understanding the roots of economic disparity."
For Beaty, the cyclical, generational problems that hold many blacks back have their origins in the psychic shackles of slavery.
"Why do you think there are more black people who are poor and in prison than any other group? Because we're inferior? No. The ghetto is a modern-day plantation. And don't get it twisted, I'm not just talking about poor people. You can have a six-figure income, a Ph.D., and still be a slave in your mind.
"I don't believe in telling the story as excuse-making. People overcome and do the extraordinary every day. But I do believe in telling the story for the sake of context and saying, 'You may have been born in the ghetto and your mom and your grandmother may have been in the ghetto and there's a root for this economic disparity. But the same way there's a root for that disparity there is a story of tremendous overcoming and possibility that can also inspire you to be greater than your circumstances may cause you to believe you can be."
Beaty's a case in point. The Dayton, Ohio native's father became a career criminal and heroin addict. With his father in and out of prison Beaty and his older brother were raised by their social worker mother, Shirley Magee.
"My mother is a phenomenal woman. She grew up very poor in a small North Carolina town. She and her family participated in boycotts and sit-ins. She saw the becoming and the challenges of that period in our history. She's just a fighter by nature, so in the midst of my father's incarceration and addiction she made sure we were provided for at the expense of her own rest. She worked long hours and took care of her children."
Daniel's prodigious writing and speaking skills set him on a path to higher education. The Yale University and American Conservatory Theater graduate has written a string of solo (Through the Night) and ensemble (Resurrection) plays that have garnered acclaim.
Dedicated to being an "artist activist," he says his activism is "rooted in everything I write anyway but I'm more and more being asked to participate in causes, in conversations around social issues. I personally believe that with a platform of fame or celebrity comes the responsibility to be a participant in the social discourse. With the privilege of people saying we listen to you, we want to hear from you comes a responsibility to give voice to those who don't have that voice. That's a big lesson I was taught by some of my mentors like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, who used the platform of their celebrity or performance to talk about important issues."
He feels there's also a healing and bridging his work offers audiences.
"One of the main reasons I choose to perform and write solo plays is because I believe inherent in seeing one person portray dozens of characters in a truthful, three-dimensional manner is the message that we are all connected. I sincerely believe our greatest problems as a world are rooted in the illusion we are separate from one another and different from one another. Certainly there are points of difference but I sincerely believe we are more alike than we are unalike," he says.
"I think it's in the space of understanding our shared humanity that we have the best possibility of healing the social economic disparities and ending the violence that plague societies. We are responsible to each other and for each other."
He says his work falls in line with the African-American oral tradition and its contemporary spoken word off-shoots.
"One of the framing devices of the play is a nationally televised competition of slam poets called 'America's Next Top Poet,' It's a riff on the reality TV talent competitions we have today and a platform for various characters in the show who are thematically responding to the various things happening in the play.
"I look at slam poetry as having its roots in the black arts movement of the 1960s and while I certainly have respect for certain hip hop artists and particularly the roots of hip hop the slam poetry I endeavor to write is poetry about uplift, and investigating a social-political human scene in need of urgent, passionate exploration. I don't write about things I would consider every day, mundane or not in support of us becoming our best selves as human beings. I write about things I feel are very urgent, like the state of our young people, the state of our families."
Outside the New York theater scene he's perhaps best known for having been a Def Poetry Jam regular. His performance there of the poem "Knock, Knock," taken from his own Emergency, became a YouTube sensation. He uses slam poetry and spoken word as testimonies that comment on the incendiary events of his plays. He likes what can be expressed through the slam style.
"I actually call the moments of heightened poetic expression in my shows soul arias. They're moments of direct address that are these passionate two to three minute explosions of poetic expression that crystalize not only an idea or theme but an emotional feeling in a powerful, poignant way that can parallel the aria in opera or the soliloquy in Shakespeare.
"'Knock, Knock' is a perfect example."
The searing poem affirms that parents' bad decisions need not define their children's lives.
Knock knock for me.
For as long as you are free,
These prison gates cannot contain my spirit.
The best of me still lives in you.
Knock knock with the knowledge that you are my son,
But you are not my choices.
Yes, we are our fathers’ sons and daughters,
But we are not their choices.
For despite their absences,
We are still here,
With the power to change this world
One little boy and girl at a time.
"Ultimately what I discovered is that no matter where we come from or where we are in terms of challenges or difficulties we have the power to create our lives," Beaty says. "My deepest pain was the path to my highest purpose. By really dealing with the challenges of my past and looking at them straight in the face I discovered I have a story to tell. I'm able to create the kind of life I want out of clarity of who I'm choosing to be, not out of fear of who I could be based on my past."
It's a message he'll share with youths during his Sherwood Foundation-sponsored Omaha visit in workshops at North, South and Central high schools and with the Young, Gifted & Black teen troupe at The Rose Theater.
For updates on the artist visit www.danielbeaty.com.
Emergency tickets available at TicketOmaha.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.