A new play at Cleveland Public Theatre examines the 1966 Hough riots and draws parallels to today.
For Pandora Robertson, good art comes from stellar research. For her play Incendiaries, an examination of the 1966 Hough riots that runs Jan. 7-23 at Cleveland Public Theatre, the writer and director read newspaper clippings, interviewed residents and delved deep into historical documents. To find material, Robertson dug through the 150-page Cleveland Citizens Committee on Hough Disturbances report nine times. "[Residents] have told a story," says Robertson. "We've written a scene that is a reconstruction of that story." We asked her what else she discovered while adapting Hough's six days of turmoil for the stage.
In the mid-'60s, Hough was one of Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods, home to many African-Americans who had migrated north for industrial jobs. The event that reportedly sparked the riots — a racially charged fight outside the Seventy-Niners Cafe — is interpreted in the show. "It was very overcrowded," says Robertson. "They were just in this really small area which had four times the population density of any other neighborhood in Cleveland at the time."
In an era before widespread central air conditioning, the summer heat drove residents outside to cool down and helped fuel the violence that claimed four lives. "It just sort of spread like wildfire because everyone was there," says Robertson. "The streets were the Facebook of the time. Everybody just got out and saw what was going on."
While a '60s grand jury concluded an organized group of agitators, including communists, had instigated the riots, the resident accounts and current historians dispute that finding. "There were reports that there were snipers on the top of the roofs," says Robertson. "But the people in the neighborhood will say there were no snipers, it was just the policemen and National Guardsmen who were going in and shooting willy-nilly."
In 1965, Carl Stokes lost the Cleveland mayoral race to Ralph Locher by a thin margin. The next year, Locher sealed his political fate when he waited two days to call in the National Guard to quell the rioting, says Robertson. Stokes beat Locher in the 1967 Democratic primary. "It was his Katrina moment," says Robertson.
Following the riots, the Cleveland Citizens Committee on Hough Disturbances compiled resident accounts, including a scene depicted in the play in which police drag apartment residents out of their beds without warrants. "When you read the testimony of those people, there's such pride in their voices through all the pain and horrific experiences they went through," says Robertson. "It has similarities to Black Lives Matter almost before they had vocabulary for it."