Tuesday, June 20, 2023

"The Burning of Greenwood" by nimbus theatre at the Crane Theater

On the day before Juneteenth, a long-marked celebration of the end of slavery that was finally made a US federal holiday in 2021, I attended a play about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Awareness of this atrocious event in our history that destroyed a thriving Black community has increased in recent years. In just 75 minutes, The Burning of Greenwood shows us a day in the life of the business owners and families in this community, and how it all changed that day in 1921. The unsettling thing is that over a hundred years later, the destruction of Black communities and lives is continuing to happen, if in less dramatic ways. Plays like this shine a light on our history and the way it reflects the present, allow the Black community to be seen, increase empathy and understanding, and hopefully pave the way for a better future. The Burning of Greenwood continues at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through July 25 only.

Last year's virtually sold out Minnesota Fringe Festival show Black Wall Street: Dreamland Theatre was a visceral and immersive experience that "doesn't try to tell you what happened on that tragic day, rather it makes you feel what happened." It opened with the showing of historical Black films of the early 20th Century, and then we experienced what happened in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa as if we were inside the theater. For this production, creator Doc Woods has worked with playwright Altese Robinson and nimbus theatre in what is less a remount of Black Wall Street than a companion piece, or another play in a series. It's structured more as a traditional play, with scenes playing out prior to and after the moments depicted in the original piece for a fuller picture of the event and people involved. It's less visceral, but just as affecting.

Loula (Kira K. Spears) with her son William
(Jeremie Niyonkuru, photo courtesy of nimbus)
This story centers on the Williams family, John (Doc Woods) and Loula (Kira K. Spears) and their son William (played by actual teenager Jeremie Niyonkuru Jr.), who own a sweet shop in the neighborhood. When a young Black man is arrested for allegedly assaulting a White woman, John joins with other men of the neighborhood to assure his safety, and brings young William along with him, much to Loula's concern. Despite the Sherriff's assurances that the charges are being dropped and the accused will be safely released, John and his friends show up to protect him as an angry White mob approaches. As in the original piece, we hear the chaos and violence (through startling sound design by Dameun Strange), and now we also witness the Williams' shop being destroyed. The friends and neighbors come back together in the aftermath, and the Williams are determined to rebuild Greenwood, no matter how long it takes.

Doc Woods directs the talented cast, which also includes Black Wall Street cast members Quintin Michael, Emmanuel L. Woods, Camrin King, Michael Galvan, and B.E. Kerian reprising their roles. The sparse set includes the sweet shop counter on one side of the stage, and the Sherriff's office on the other, with the courthouse steps always visible in the background. The cast is dressed in period clothing that shows us the success of this community (scenic design by Tyler Krohn, costume design by the Costume Collective).

While Black Wall Street was a visceral experience that made you feel like you were inside the burning of Greenwood, this iteration shows us more of what was happening around town. It's a powerful play about a devastating moment in our history that's important to remember. See The Burning of Greenwood at the Crane Theater through June 25.