By Rachel Werner

“The Mojo and the Sayso” debuts in Madison Feb. 18 and “Real Stories about Race” is the pre-show event Feb. 20 Overture Center, Madison.

“THIS IS OUR RESPONSE,” states Bronzeville Arts Ensemble founding member Sheri Williams Pannell  and ensemble producing artistic director Malkia Stampley. “there’s no excuse for the deaths of all these young people at the hands of individuals who are supposed to be there to protect them. ”

A response to black lives lost that Williams Pannell and Stampley— along with “Real Stories About Race” director Olivia Dawson and Theatre LILA co-founder Jessica Lanius— hope illicits an emotional reaction from audiences when their production of Aishah Rahman’s play “”The Mojo and the Sayso” is performed in Madison and Milwaukee this winter.

Lanius sees their performance art as having dual objectives: diversifying their cast and audience, while also attempting to further illuminate the racial injustices and inequities occurring across Dane County and the country as a whole.

She says, “What happened in Ferguson made us determined to take some kind of artistic action that could potentially add to the conversation toward action and change, “Then Madison’s own Tony Robinson was shot and killed and it became more personal, “The more we seek to understand why these kinds of incidents happen, the more we will recognize they are not isolated, but rather connected to broader, underlying social issues.”

Originally written in the late 1980s, the drama is based on the true story of a 1973 police shooting in New York City. An unarmed 10-year-old African-American boy was slain by officers attempting to apprehend a burglary suspect. In the wake of his death, his family struggles to come to terms with their grief and how to move forward in the same community in which their child was murdered.

The reality is that incidents such as these have been occurring for decades, yet only in recent years have started to receive media coverage or resulted in occasional prosecutions and suspensions for the officers involved. All of which is a modern tragedy all four women feel we can no longer chose to ignore on a local or a national level.

As Dawson explains, “I see that something is wrong, very wrong in our country in terms of race relations and it only seems to be getting worse. When I see someone taking the initiative to do some – thing about it, I want to do whatever I can to support that. When Jessica asked me to be a part of this project, I was honored. And when you want to change something, I was always taught that you start at home and go from there. ”

And, starting from their home, Wisconsin, these women say there is much to be done, evident by the array of alarming statistics related to racial disparity that have come to light in recent years. A 2014 report from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families revealed our state ranks last in the country in the overall wellbeing of African-American children, with 4-out-of-5 black children in Wisconsin living in poverty.

Current incarceration rates further highlight such disparities. As outlined by several sources, including the Race to Equity report and a UW-Milwaukee study, “In 2012, Dane County African Americans were admitted to prison facilities at a rate 15 times greater than that for white adults. While Dane County black adults were only 4.8 percent o f the total aged 18 to 54 adult population, they constituted nearly 44 percent of new adult prison placements in the county.”

And in Milwaukee County, it states “more than half of all black men in their 30s and 40s have served time. In the ‘53206’ zip code alone, 62 percent of all men have spent time in an adult correctional facility by age 34.”

Dawson, Lanius and Williams Pannell say they are attempting to address these issues on a human level by moving audiences to a feeling of loss for the innocent lives being ripped from our communities and the voids these victims’ families are left with—regardless of the families’ skin color and the assumptions that come with it.

Lanius explains, “Our thought was to further this effort through theater workshops and see if they could be an alternative, arts-based space for expression, community building and sharing of personal stories about race—in order to listen and learn. To begin exploring the idea that we can—and should—talk [about race] and experience someone else’s point of view. And, if we can face our own truths, we can build compassion and begin to move toward healing, truth and change, “That is what good theater can do.”

“The women say the only way they see forward is through informative discussions and effective initiatives for change. “That belief spawned the one-night performance of “The Real Stories About Race,” a theatrical recanting of memoir excerpts from participants in race relations workshops the women hosted for several months before the main production opened.

“Their collaboration on both projects is also a testament to the bridges that can be formed across seemingly dividing lines. “I believe that the three of us are of like minds: three different takes on things and visions, but we all want the same thing— to open a dialogue and foster illumination, understanding and hope that things can change for the better,” Dawson says. “Simply put, I am doing this project because I, too, believe that theater can be a catalyst for change.”

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