Multidisciplinary arts presentation examines the role of protest in contemporary society

While I'm not aware of any planned protests outside the Fort Hayes Performing Arts Theatre this weekend, inside the space, there's going to be a riot.

Maroon Arts Group addresses the issue of civil unrest in its multidisciplinary production – MAG is using the term “choreopoem” to describe the staged combination of movement, music and words – titled “Inside the Riot.” The project has its genesis in a 2016 Write the Power residency, for which MAG brought together a team of writers and theater artists over a 12-week period to create a work around the idea of protest as a vehicle for social change. Writer/educator Dionne Custer Edwards facilitated the eight-person writing team, which was assisted by theater artist Elizabeth Wellman and actor Shanelle Marie.

“Our goal was to take our individual experiences and become a collective,” Custer Edwards said. “We asked questions like: ‘What can art do?'; ‘What can writing do?'; ‘How can we write to power?' We sort of centered around the idea of protest, of revolution, and of the various public portrayals of that [concept], and we dealt with it in the way we know how to do, as artists.”

The team of writers also included Cynthia Amoah, William Evans, Barbara Fant, Ja Vaughn Graves, Tiffani Smith, Matthew Vaughn and Malik Willoughby. While the team was composed primarily of poets, most brought some other expression to the table, be it performing or visual arts. That was the lens through which MAG asked the group to prepare its script.

“I think that, collectively, we just wanted a place to respond to what was happening in an artistic way, to make a place where the writers felt safe, where they could talk about the issues and create,” Shanelle Marie said.

Custer Edwards said the news cycle continued to intrude on the group's work. “It seemed like every week there was a new story of someone losing their life to a power structure in some way,” she said, adding that there were times the group spent more time in tears, in silence and trying to heal each other than it did in creating, grappling with the killings of, among others, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and, locally, Henry Green and Ty're King.

“We didn't know what to do with the headlines, the amount of injustice … so this was a refuge for us,” Custer Edwards said.

As the work continued, the group's shared experiences touched on these larger events and issues, Evans said, the personal giving a voice to the universal. Ultimately, that process was reversed in many ways, with the writers opting to tell the story of the suffering and resistance of African-American people through the eyes of individuals.

“We didn't want to lose the idea that things happen to people, and people respond,” William Evans said. “We have a recurring element called ‘The Calling,' in which names of people who have been killed are called out. And as for protest, we wanted to look at where a person might have come from that they ended up here, in this gathering of people. The hope is to de-generalize.”

“We wove our own personal experience into that space, too,” Barbara Fant said. “There's an internal dialogue that takes place, that we have to have with ourselves. I think, in the end, everything we wanted to put into it and get out, we did.”

By using poetry and movement, the collective was able to address protest, riot and civil unrest in ways that speak to all audiences.

“Art gets us away from linear storytelling like you get in journalism,” Evans said. “Not every idea I want to express can be so cut and dried as to just tell the story of what happened. As a group, we wanted to define things that are a little harder to touch and give them a little more texture.”

“The work is really about mobilizing for an uprising, about all those things that lead up to a situation where people have had enough,” said Gamal Brown, who is directing “Inside the Riot.” “But there are so many beautiful metaphors inside the work. These writers are so dynamic. It's been rewarding to have a couple of them come to a rehearsal and you get maybe a little head nod or a smile. That's when you know you're on the right track and we need to keep going.”

“There are no answers, just pressing realities and hard truths,” Fant said. “It's going to make you think and provoke you, as any art piece should. The hope is that a conversation continues that is a search for those answers.”