How "The Line" Was Created

“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
— James Baldwin

It had been no more than a couple months into my new internship with Virginia Stage Company that I’d found myself shooting the breeze with the young woman who would become my partner in art. Kat Martin and I sat at the bar of the Buffalo Wild Wings praising ourselves for surviving a hectic, yet productive, eight weeks, and we’d finally had some time to discuss our artistic goals for the future. It didn’t take us long to discover that we rode the same wavelengths when it came to pushing for a more inclusive and progressive focus in the art we wanted to create. We were — and still are — the bright eyed “newbies” hoping to change the world.

Earlier that summer in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. I remember watching people vilify this child, who, if he were born white, would’ve been allowed his boyhood. No one would’ve tried to rearrange his narrative, manipulating audiences into thinking a young man deserved death. Posthumous accounts of him — not by those who knew him, of course — sought to redefine this teenager as a monster and nothing more. The same occurred with Trayvon Martin, whose story is well known. Both men knew no justice, and their killers walked free. The death of young black boys by white men always makes me think of the most infamous case of an unresolved race-related murder: Emmett Till, the fourteen year old accused of flirting with a white woman in 1955. In all cases, lines of some sort were crossed.

Enter James Baldwin. During my college years as a theater student at Temple University, I’d stumbled across Blues for Mister Charlie, Baldwin’s epic play that was a sharp, critical response to Till’s death. With a drastically different reimagining of the true story, Baldwin gives us a microcosm of America in the 1960s. The play is sprawling and emotionally taxing, but he attempts to make all of his key characters and their issues our focus. The most interesting of characters is a white man who seems to easily be able to navigate his way through “Blacktown” and “Whitetown” (two fictional locations in the play). He is met with the least resistance when crossing into areas where he may not be completely welcome. This, of course, is not the case for all of the characters in the play. What is fascinating about this work, to me, is that Baldwin is truly invested in exploring how White American thought works. He also, as per usual, gives us Black reality with a dose of religion as well. It was the story as it related to Emmett Till, though, that made me mention Blues to Kat.

Luckily, she’d read the play already, and we both felt it would be a great idea to try and produce it for an audience. Plans for a fully-realized, staged reading of the three-hour play, however, fell through, and for a while we thought we’d have to shelve the idea for good…

In our second year with VSC, as full-time employees, we decided to resurrect the idea and implement it somewhere in our Education and Outreach programs. As an actor, I am always thrilled to perform in pieces that make audiences think, and most importantly, feel. If people leave a performance changed and wanting to change others, then I have more than done my job. There was something about this project that I felt could do exactly that: change our community. If it couldn’t change it entirely, it could serve as a spark. Sometimes sparks are all you need.

When I think of Norfolk, specifically the downtown area, I remember my own experiences with that part of the city. Downtown Norfolk was Tidewater Park, to me. That’s where much of my family grew up. Both my mother and father have roots in that community. I never lived there, but I would visit frequently. All I knew as a child was that it felt exclusively like a Black neighborhood. I’d never seen white people enter or exit the community, though I’m sure it happened. I never questioned why everyone lived in the same long rows of brick houses, but I knew that people were happy there; they loved there, and they were family. The experiences of the people in that community, however, weren’t happening in whiter neighborhoods. I knew this for sure because I grew up in a more diverse community in the Norview area. I lost one of my Tidewater Park cousins (he was killed a few feet from his doorstep) due to gun violence. In my neighborhood, guns weren’t even a concern of mine.

St. Paul's Boulevard Present Day (click to enlarge)

St. Paul's Boulevard in the 1970s (click to enlarge)

Across St. Paul’s Boulevard there was “Little New York.” I’d always classified it as that because it had tall buildings and always seemed to be busy with activity. It also didn’t seem to have a lot of people who looked like me unless they were super rich or homeless. There was no in-between in my young mind. What I saw were people who had or didn’t have. That was amplified when I was a kid attending Ghent Elementary and my friends got to return to their huge houses in Stockley Gardens while I returned to a very modest apartment in Coleman Place. When I moved to Norview after first grade, whole new worlds began to open to me, and I am certain it had to do with being exposed to more diversity. This means that lines would blur for the rest of my life.

To me, there have always been visible lines of separation in my city. There are a myriad of invisible lines as well. Some are self-policed. Like James Baldwin, I’d reached a point where I wanted to investigate why that was.

Now, mind you, Norfolk seems to be currently undergoing what I consider “The Brooklyn Treatment” with all of our newer artistic endeavors coupled with gentrification. But I don’t see those same efforts spreading into communities like Tidewater Gardens or Youngs Terrace or Diggs Town (places that used to have “Park” as their unofficial surnames). What I do see is economic separation that is intrinsically linked to racial division, and I see a community that is sometimes stuck in the “this is how it is” when “this is how it could be” is happening all around them.

Tidewater Gardens (picture taken by Hyunsoo Leo Kim)

I think I have always lived in “this is how it could be.” So much of my life has been lived gaining access to spaces that others shut themselves out of. Education definitely helped me navigate those spaces. I’m pretty sure other privileges have allowed for my ability to move freely from one space to the next as well. But there is a niggling feeling in my bones that I get when I see some people who look like me, but who feel they cannot have access to the same things I did/do. It’s almost guilt. Possibly remorse. Why isn’t everyone in my city allowed to move freely throughout this city? It’s ours! One should never go into a neighborhood or into a store and feel as if they aren’t allowed because of economic reasons, race, etc. Nor should anyone make others feel unwelcome for those exact same reasons.

So “The Line: Art For Social Change” was birthed to explore these ideas of lines that are seen and unseen. What separates a community? What can bring it together? What are the spaces where everyone feels safe? How can we create equitable spaces for others? How can we move a city forward in knowledge, respect, and most importantly, love? Well, we have to be the spark for conversation. Hopefully beginning that conversation in an equitable space (The Slover Library) will be enough to inspire participants to continue the conversations in their own communities. At day’s end, education must be shared, and we are providing the service of education to our city. We cannot solve all the issues The Line will address, but we can bring them to the table.

Kat and I are “Artivists.” We hope to change Hampton Roads through art and education.

VSC Resident Theatre Artists, Kat Martin (left) and Tommy Coleman (right), at an interview with WHRO

In partnership with Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, our Education & Community Engagement Department will present “The Line: Art for Social Change," the first interactive, forum workshop in the department’s Art For Social Change Series, on August 21 at 3PM at The Slover Library. By empowering community members to investigate and deconstruct racially divided areas, The Line will inspire the creation of democratic and equitable spaces in southeastern Virginia.

To register for this FREE event, please click here.