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Are we brave enough yet?

Story by Chris Graham

Two things you’re not supposed to talk about – politics and religion.
Let’s add a third – because race issues can get even the best-intentioned of people to clam up in a hurry.
“The fun thing about that is, I get that sense of things from, say, both sides of the aisle or all sides of the aisle,” said Clinton Johnston, a Charlottesville-based playwright whose Am I Black Enough Yet? will premiere at The Hamner Theater in Nellysford next month, in an interview for today’s “Augusta Free Press Show.”

The first act of the play – really a collection of one-act plays that Johnston began developing in 2001 for No Shame Theatre in Staunton – could put you on the defensive if you’re not ready, as Johnston readily concedes.

“Eventually it became clear to us that the only way to heal this country’s sad racial divide … is to cross it!” a member of the performance troupe will say in the first act of the production, entitled “Honorary Black Folk.”

“So something we’d like to do now – it’s kind of a radical step, but I think we’re gonna’ get a lot of mileage from it – for the duration of this performance, we’re gonna’ make everybody here Black. OK?”

From there, Johnston gives his audience a list of “Eight Things You Should Know or Do When You’re Fully Black!” – starting with #1, “There are more of them then there are of us!” My favorites are #3, “You have to acknowledge other Black people on the street,” and #4, “Movies, television, music videos are billboards; they are not mirrors. They are projecting. They are not reflecting.”

“African Americans have a very complex relationship with the media – because we look to media to reflect. We look to television and movies to do that, and at the same time, we have to be aware that the people behind the things that we see have particular agendas and particular things that they want to show,” Johnston said in the interview, by way of explaining #4 there.
“And the thing is, the people who are sculpting these images are usually not African Americans – at least they certainly don’t have the best interests of African Americans at heart,” Johnston said.

Am I Black Enough Yet? is another form of sculpture that Johnston has been chipping away at for several years now.

“Every Black History Month, I try to do something, whether it’s public or private. One Black History Month, I spent the whole month listening to sermons by Dr. Martin Luther King. And so Black History Month was coming, it was 2001, and I said, Oh, crap, well, what am I going to do? Time for me to think of something,” Johnston said.

“Something I hadn’t tried was writing a series of pieces all on one topic. Why don’t I do that? So I decided to write a series of pieces examining blackness. That was my focus,” Johnston said.

Other pieces of Am I Black Enough Yet? examine the relationship between African Americans and native Africans who have come to America to study and work and seem to have their own issues being accepted by their brethren and a look at the two sides of interracial relationships.

The approach is both light and heavy at the same time, if that makes sense.

“That’s something that occurred to me right before I was going to do this – because I thought, Well, I want to do these pieces that talk about race. And as the play says, whenever we talk about race, it’s usually a serious thing, and people get very nervous. Like, Oh, my gosh, is there going to be fingerpointing? Are there going to be people wringing their hands? Am I going to be blamed? Am I going to get angry? All this sort of stuff,” Johnston said.
“I wanted to create an atmosphere where we could talk about serious issues, where we could examine serious issues and really look at things and pick stuff apart and say, Let’s look at this issue of blackness and ask where does it begin and where does it end, and who’s deciding that, and what happens when those decisions are made, and when is it something that propels you forward, and when is it something that holds you back? But do it in an atmosphere where people are comfortable, where people aren’t threatened so that they’re open to it,” Johnston said.

Am I Black Enough Yet?
WHERE: The Hamner Theater, Nellysford
WHEN: March 19-22
INFO: 434.361.1999,

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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