Harlem. Watts. Tulsa. Ferguson. Birmingham. Chicago. Detroit. Selma.
These cities’ names serve as placemarkers in the vast landscape of American racism and the war against it, as tide-turning 20th Century battle sites between Black citizens robbed of their Constitutional rights by largely White American-governed power structure. It is high time the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami, Florida, is added to this list; as the most Black-populated neighborhood in South Florida and an African diaspora unto itself, the residents rioted in May 1980 when a jury acquitted four police officers of killing unarmed Black man Arthur McDuffie. Over the course of three days 18 men and women died, over 200 Blacks were arrested and even little children were prohibited from crossing lines to get into their own homes.
In some cases of these metropolises, such as Tulsa and Selma, White mobs openly disenfranchised Black citizens and destroyed their communities to halt progress against the promise of equality for all in America. However in most, Black Americans stood up for their rights to peace of mind, safety, and opportunity via community-driven riots and mass protests to turn against their own homeland with a unified statement: “If anybody is going to continue to destroy us, it will be us ourselves.”
Thanks to the searing “Liberty City” play written by April Yvette Thompson and Jessica Blank, the neighborhood may join the aforementioned metropolises in the history books and national imagination. Written as a one-woman autobiographical show to chart Thompson’s upbringing as the daughter of Black nationalist activists in Liberty City in the 1970’s, the play blends the several characters’ experiences of identity formation and racially-based victimization across domestic and community lines as seen through the eyes of a child forced to grow up far too fast. Chicago’s eta Creative Arts Foundation chose “Liberty City” to launch its 45th Anniversary celebrations.
The play’s robust script provides audiences a catalog of powerful topics, historical analysis and character diversity: colonialism, the poisonous roots of passing for and emulating whites, the oppositional coping mechanisms of good ole-fashioned Black religion and atheist Black power ideology, the suspicious influx of crack in brown and black communities, and the simple tender relationship between a present black father and his adoring children. It is possible some characters and themes, although entertaining and apt, could have been left out at the expense of concentration on where the play wants to take us ultimately: into a lived theatric experience of racially-based tension and pressure at the height of its expression, and the terror and confusion of living through a race riot or sprout of violence born of Black American struggles.
However, the strength and sincerity of lone debut actress Anna Dauzvardis as ‘April’ is the beating heart of “Liberty City.” We meet Dauzvardis as an elementary school kid in an elite private school her father intends to prepare her for battle with his obsessed-upon enemy: White America. At outset, a dispute over April’s expression of her African-based ancestry lands her in deep trouble for lying. From there, April’s memories reveal the chaotic turbulence hurled upon many black females past and present: at once the strongest and most depended-upon backbones between fractured generations, but also the most vulnerable and fragile race warriors as women.
How Dauzvardis is able to capture the depths and ranges of such important themes and versatile personalities in a challenging 90-minute straight acting exercise is almost supernatural. Without any costume or set changes, scene partners, props, or intermissions, she plays her character’s own self, father, mother, grandmother, aunt, little brother, oppressors, and more. The intimacy and trust between audience and actor for this performance can hardly be reviewed or criticized and must just be experienced.
By structuring a one-woman show to hybridize over a dozen characters across a near decade, the playwrights took a daring risk audiences might never see this play; although the barebones stage and unicast promise a budget-friendly production to an economically-crushed theatre industry, the difficult material and physical demand require unusually capable and gifted professionals to pull off. The eta Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago, Ms. Dauzvardis and all involved in this production should be commended for proving “Liberty City” was worth the risk.
Jeff-recommended “Liberty City” is LIVE this weekend and extended until July 19: this Friday, Jul 10 (8pm), Saturday, July 11, and Sunday, Jul 12 (3pm). ALL SEATS – $20. To get your tickets call 773 752-3955 or go online http://www.etacreativearts.org/