I don’t remember exactly when I began to think this way, but looking back, it must have been at some point during my early elementary school years that I began to believe the “American History” I was learning in school was either incomplete or misleading. I understood and accepted that I needed to master this information, if I intended to do well in school. But I just couldn’t buy what was being sold as truth. How could it be, in the country with the most richly diverse population, that every wonderful or noteworthy thing ever accomplished was accomplished only by white men?
It sounds silly when you think of it that way. But, if you were a child in the U.S. being educated in a public school system at anytime before the 1970s, it’s likely you were being taught history from textbooks that contained virtually no mention of people of color and rarely mentioned women. It wasn’t much better in the other subjects, but at least those books had female images. In 1st grade I began reading with the help of a primer called Fun with Dick and Jane. Dick, Jane, their little sister Sally, and all of their friends were white as was every other human being pictured in the book. The only character of color in that series was Spot, their dog. Whether the subject was history, math, reading, English, or science, the only people in the schoolbooks of my childhood, were white people.
I’m happy to say things have improved. My children’s educational experience was different from mine. The next generation’s will be even better; they’ll have the Obamas and many other notable people of color past and present in their history books.
I was led to reflect on my introduction to history because of a play written by first-time playwright Grady L. Mackey. The play, “Just Old Men Talking,” was billed as a story about “four elderly black men from Bluffhill, Alabama, now living in Birmingham, who were engaged in conversation and expounding on the “talk of their time,” their younger years, and the world today. This powerfully written piece was read this weekend at the KSLG Theatre, a small theatre company in downtown Los Angeles, founded by Sharon L. Graine. My husband, stepdaughter Nea, and I went to see it last night. It was a delightful surprise.
The story took me back to the way I learned history. You see, in spite of being omitted from the history books, people of color have always been able to pass on some of their history – sometimes in song, sometimes as folk tales, sometimes as stories.
People of African descent, in particular, have a strong oral tradition. Telling stories as a way to pass on information from one generation to the next was and is an age-old tradition still practiced in Africa.
In the play, the lead character, Red, masterfully portrayed by actor Chester Graine, has a gift for gab. He delivers a story well and seems to enjoy doing it. He’s the type of old man you could listen to for hours because his are the kinds of stories you don’t find in the history books – well, at least not the history books of my youth. Red’s stories flow easily, one after another. One, in particular, struck a chord with me.
Red was young then, living in Bluffhill, in southern Alabama. He was walking down a dirt road in his little town when a white man riding a horse approached, blocking Red’s way and calling him “coon” – or so Red thought. Turns out there was a bit of a mixup that occurred in the verbal exchange between Red and the white man on the horse. Unfortunately, Red didn’t discover the mistake until it was too late. As a result of this encounter, the white man ended up with a broken leg and Red ended up abruptly leaving town. I’m intentionally leaving out details because I don’t want to spoil it but what stuck with me was the reaction of one of the other characters as Red tells his story.
Thomas, played by Chris Reese, sat in disbelief as Red relayed the events leading up to the culmination that brought the story to life. When Red finished, Thomas asks, “how is it possible that all Emmett Till did was whistle at a white woman and you did all of that and still got out of Bluffhill without getting your neck stretched?”
Maybe it was the image of Emmett Till that popped into my mind as I heard his name spoken. Maybe it was the nonchalant tone in the voices of the characters as they touched on a painful and shameful topic in America’s not too distant past — lynchings — but at that moment I began to listen with new ears and to see with new eyes.
The nuanced exchange between characters, the knowing glances, the meaningful head tilts, the barely audible “humph,” this was how the stories were told. This is how I remember learning about some of the parts of American history that I wouldn’t learn about at Public School 103 in the Bronx where I grew up. And these actors delivered — masterfully!
Hut, played by Marcus Sampson, was a frustrated scholar. Gitmo, played by Jose Turner, was the pre-hip-hop, smooth-talking lady’s man. Thomas, played by Chris Reese, was an earnest, hard-working farmer longing for a simpler time. Red, played by Chester Graine, was a frustrated former athlete. J.T., played by Theodore Martinez, was an angry young man just trying to figure things out. And Delilah, played by Lana Leigh Taylor, was a pretty black woman who used the advantages that beauty affords to make her way in life. Percy Wilder provided technical support.
Grady Mackey’s piece was the story of blacks in America surviving with the tools they have under less than optimum circumstances and, at times, excelling.
We look forward to our next trip to the KSLG Theatre. The next play , “Truckstop Cafe,” written by the theatre’s Sharon Graine, will be presented on Friday and Saturday nights, June 5 to June 27. After the reading of Just Old Men Talking, before the audience in the small theatre got to meet the cast, Ms. Graine explianed that her new play is based on the 1980’s cult film “Bagdad Cafe.”
KSLG Playhouse Theatre Players perform at the Harry Mastergeorge Theatre in the Downtown Los Angeles Brewery District. Located at at 600 Moulton Avenue, Los Angeles, the intimate theater seats 60. For reservations and show information call 323.227.5410.