Keely Enright, Producing Artistic Director of The Village Repertory Co.
It is hard to believe that it was April of this year when we first began talks with Evan Linder about co-premiering this new work. Let me repeat that because it is kind of eerie to me. We began making plans in April of 2015 before the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a white police officer on the streets of North Charleston, before the massacre of nine congregants at the historic Mother Emmanuel AME Church in the heart of our city by a southern white supremacist.
Charleston, South Carolina – the internationally renowned, tourist friendly “jewel” of the South- so often lauded with accolades and high rankings among visitors, Charleston residents had grown accustomed to the limelight with “Most Friendly” and “Top 10” awards consistently bestowed upon our picturesque community. But the one- two punch of last April and June changed the nation’s perception of Charleston seemingly overnight. Instead of a quaint, tourist attraction, the nation, and the world, saw tragedy, horror and RACISM. Why produce Byhalia, Mississippi in Charleston, SC? The question really was- How could you not?
The Village Repertory Co is in residence in a beautiful, 101 year old former ice house and meat storage warehouse that has been adapted, restored and converted into a state of the art performance venue. The Woolfe Street Playhouse is located in what is called the “Upper King” section of Charleston. We are 6 blocks from Mother Emmanuel, and our staff was at the Playhouse the night of the massacre. We were in rehearsal as the ambulances and police cars raced past us on the way down to the church. What unfolded in the hours after the shooting was terrifying, heartbreaking and incredible. The immediate terror that the gunman was on the loose was soon replaced with the certainty that this was a calculated attack by a troubled white racist. All at once the city was besieged by media from around the world and gawkers of all shapes and sizes flooded the city.
Thousands of residents walked the Cooper River Bridge hand in hand in a show of solidarity, and the white hot spotlight continued to shine as President Obama arrived in Charleston to attend the funeral of one of the victims Senator Reverend Clementa Pinkney. “Charleston Strong” was the chant heard here this summer, as hundreds upon hundreds of flowers and mementos were laid upon the sidewalks outside the historic church by the countless visitors who flooded the street…
But eventually the media packed up, the summer tourists went home, the chanting grew fainter and the conversation about racism in the city stopped. We are left, as a community, to work through not just pain and grief, but to continue the dialogue these horrible tragedies sparked. To be candid, this is certainly not the first or second time racism has played a role in Charleston. There is no way to separate racism from the historic fabric of this city, but NOW, right now, we have an opportunity for meaningful conversation about race and inequality amongst all races, religions and socio economic groups. A meaningful and honest conversation is the only way to combat the negative effects of ignorance and fear. We are so excited to bring Byhalia, Mississippi to Charleston, SC to use this thoughtful play as a way to question, discuss and participate in the larger national dialogue.
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