History is a story. That’s the line that ended my evening at the Bluebarn Theatre after watching their latest production, Red Summer. For those who are loyal fans of The Reader’s stage and arts section, you will recognize the name Beaufield Berry. She has long been the editor of this section and is a well-known figure in the Omaha theatre community. Her latest coup is the world premiere of her play Red Summer at the Bluebarn.
The play focuses on the summer of 1919 in Omaha during the Great Migration, a time in our history during which thousands of black families migrated from the South to the North for better-paying jobs and the promise of more freedom. What they found, instead, was a society that was only slightly better from where they came from. As war veterans returned from WWI, jobs became scarce, and this was blamed on the influx of new black residents. Rising tensions across these northern towns led to what was eventually called the Red Summer when hundreds of black people were killed across the country. Omaha was not immune to this experience, and our own history involved the brutal murder of William Brown, who is the focus of this production.
Rather than choosing to tell the story as a top-down experience, Berry focused on the life of Will Brown, showcasing his humanity by telling his personal story and artfully creating the stories of those who surrounded him. This is a piece of historical fiction, so some elements within the play come from Berry’s imagination, but the characters and their experiences are based on actual events. Berry’s telling changes the focus of history. No longer is it a dry recitation of the facts, and it doesn’t gloss over the evil that existed. It shines a light on a tragedy that deserves a voice.
The play begins slowly by introducing the characters that populate this world. It tells their stories with images and words so that the audience can understand why the characters moved to Omaha and other northern towns. This foundation helps audiences better understand the main characters of Jed, Mac, Zella, Hannah and Will and the community and family they have created in this somewhat-foreign land. It is this simple story of people and family, which turns tragic, that creates the real horror of the play.
While Red Summer does have a slow build, the ending is worth the wait. Not only is the story powerful, but the choice of staging keeps you riveted: Will’s slow, solo dance in the dark, the illuminated headlines declaring that he raped a woman. It all gracefully comes together to show Will’s desire to simply live a life full of love and joy intermixed with the terrible way he died. It creates an experience audiences may not soon forget. There were a number of sniffles and quiet sobs as the play drew to a close. Perhaps that sound, that emotional movement, is the best praise Berry could receive.
The actors’ powerful performances also strengthened the play. Virginia Toomey, played by Haley Haas, was the only white character. Haas effectively played her with compassion, grace and charm, without simplifying her character as the scapegoat racist. Antonio Duke, as William Brown, embodied a combination of charm and anger. He was powerful, yet quiet and kind. Duke conveyed depth in Will’s character, which helped to deepen the feeling of loss at the end of the play.
While Red Summer focuses so much on the past, it puts up a mirror to our present. There are no longer lynchings in our streets, but that violence has not faded, just shifted. One of the principles that Bertolt Brecht taught in his theatre was the concept of historification, which states that good theatre purposefully chooses an event from the past in order to draw parallels to the future. He believed that current events were too close to fully comprehend, and it was easier to engage the audience’s thinking when events are far removed. In many ways, Red Summer applies that concept. This event that happened in the past parallels many current racial tensions from #BlackLivesMatter to refugees at the border, who are not only brown but have the double issue of language and culture barriers. So while this story deserves to be told and William Brown deserves for his death to be remembered by something other than a pauper’s grave with a one-word headstone, this story also does well to serve as a vehicle for a larger conversation.
During the talkback session after the production, some members of the audience asked how young people can be taught these lessons. This conversation about education and understanding our history and how it brought us to where we are speaks to the larger purpose of the arts. They provide a vehicle to truly understand and experience moments of our past, both tragic and happy. Through this experience, we hope to encourage conversation and, just maybe, change. Red Summer kicked off events around the city in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of Will Brown’s lynching and the Red Summer. It is a fitting beginning and one that will prompt discussion and hopefully awaken emotions.
History is a story and, in this case, a tragic story. Right now you have an opportunity to learn more about who we are and what has shaped us. Take this opportunity. Because we all need to understand the bad about where we came from in order to move to the good.
Red Summer is playing at the Bluebarn from Sept. 26 – Oct. 20. Tickets are $35 general admission. You can reserve tickets online here.