Living in Shadows of Truth
From Oakland to Scotland, a long distance conversation with poet, actress, and dramaturge, Lauren Whitehead
On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police with FBI support threw an improvised bomb of C4 and Tovex TR2 (a dynamite proxy) on top of a building they knew to be filled with men, women, and children of the radical Black Power organization, MOVE. The explosion and subsequent fire destroyed dozens of homes and resulted in eleven deaths, including five adults and five children, some as young seven years old. Not a single member of Philadelphia’s city government was criminally charged for their complicity in the bombings.
In this aftermath is where the story of We Shall Not Be Moved takes place: a live opera-in-verse centered around a group of West Philly orphans fleeing the city’s multiple forms of violence by squatting in one of the sixty-one row-houses destroyed by the bomb’s fire. They are “living in sort of shadows of the truth of a city that could do this to its citizens,” Lauren Whitehead tells me. A poet, actress and dramaturge, Lauren originates the play’s lead role of fifteen year old, Un/Sung.
Whitehead describes rehearsing with an all-black cast near the Osage Avenue bombing site. “Everybody has a story about where they were because it was yesterday—1985. You would think that it would be much more well known but it’s totally erased—and that’s even more scary.”
I’ve been fortunate to know Whitehead since 2004 when we were competing against each other through the youth and collegiate slam circuits. Before receiving an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia, it was while living in Oakland that her early one-woman shows took shape at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Left Coast Leaning festival in 2009.
In just the past six months, Whitehead has toured the most historic theater stages on Earth in the role of Un/Sung, and through her contributions as dramaturge and writer for the theatrical adaptation of Ta-nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a landmark text that received the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction.
Our WhatsApp phone interview takes place on a Saturday morning in May, a week before the thirty-third anniversary of the MOVE bombings, in the breakfast nook of my Oakland apartment drinking coffee while Whitehead cracks a beer in Edinburgh, Scotland, her home for the majority of 2018 as her husband pursues a Fulbright and she tours abroad.
“Ninety-six percent white” is how Whitehead describes Edinburgh. As a temporary African-American expat, I ask Whitehead if she feels connected to the larger continuum of expat African-American writers—Hurston, Baldwin, Himes, Wright.
“I don’t at all feel the kind of tension that I feel in America when I’m in all white or ninety-six percent white spaces. I don’t feel the contempt. I feel the curiosity, but it feels without scorn. I don’t feel the inherent question about my belongingness. That said, I’m not wearing a hijab. I’m not ‘their nigger,’ as Ta-nehisi would say.”
Bamuthi had written the role of Un/ Sung for Whitehead to propel the larger artistic argument of the project: poetry as song as opera.
“An opera means that it’s sung through, and they’re inherently then making the argument that the spoken word portions are, in and of themselves, sung.”
Joseph’s frenetic text and the legendary Bill T. Jones’s next-dimensional choreography all had to attune to the precise timing of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s live orchestra. Roumain studied Whitehead’s poem “Whiplash” to determine the number of words per minute Whitehead was capable of performing to accelerate the BPM of the play itself.
“I took a lot of heat because I was the lead in that show, and so much of the storytelling pressure relies on me landing my moments and sometimes I just wasn’t landing them in rehearsal,” Whitehead says, with Jones and Roumain both having “no time for me to doubt myself.”
The play premiered in Philadelphia, continued to the Apollo Theater, before international performances in Amsterdam. The New York Times named the show the Best Classical Musical Performance of 2017. Yet it was those shows at the historic Apollo where Whitehead’s understanding of Jones’s direction took shape.
“He was pushing me into one of what I think is probably the greatest performance of my life at the Apollo Theater,” Whitehead pauses between points. “After I did the second performance at the Apollo Theater, I walked into the crowd in a daze.”
Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes—who previously worked with Whitehead on HBO’s Brave New Voices documentary—pitched Whitehead the idea of a theatrical adaptation of Coates’s text.
“It’s gonna be monologues, it’s gonna be at the Apollo, and it’s not gonna be a play. And that’s sort of all we knew.”
The production itself is live staged reading for two nights at the Apollo and one at the Kennedy Center, with a rotating cast, including Common, Black Thought, and Angela Bassett. Whitehead did a large amount of her work while in the United Kingdom.
“I was working as a temporary expat writer, on a book written by a living African-American who also moved to Paris— so by an expat—written in the shadow and in the style of James Baldwin, who’s an African-American expat. It was three levels of that narrative happening in my mind at the same time.”
Turning Coates’s work into an erasure poem made his voice “less precious” to Whitehead who, as a dramaturge, “was carving out new texts from the previous texts for the stage. My job really became How do I find a multiplicity of voices in a text written by a single voice?”
Forbes quickly recruited Joseph to help deliver the lines Whitehead was creating, making their collaboration a true full circle. “How I could engage as a writer and creator in this process—was the same moment when a door opened for my teacher to perform a text that I’d crafted for him.”
This moment, with Forbes as linchpin, enabled Whitehead full creative self-license, allowing herself to feel like she was “becoming a writer in the room rather than somebody who’s looking for moments that people could read out loud. I just whittled and whittled until we had the twenty emotional moments which also somehow stayed true to the narrative that Ta-nehisi was presenting, which is: I was a black boy once; I’ve lost a black boy; you are that black boy; and none of us are safe.”—José Vadi