“I made the decision that we were not going to have a concert and that it was our responsibility as Karamu House to create a piece that was in response to the murder, but also contextualize it within the African American experience in this country as it relates to policing, civil rights and social justice,” says Sias.
Karamu’s education manager, Latecia Wilson, wrote a new play, Freedom on Juneteenth, as an educational performance that tied the lynching of Emmitt Till in 1955 to the killing of Floyd, incorporating a post-show discussion about how to activate the community and fight for change. That first performance then spurred a new virtual series: Freedom After Juneteenth.
Written by Wilson, each episode narrows in on actionable measures and timely social issues the our community faces. Episode one, which aired in August, focused on police brutality and all the various ways in which the Black community responds to and is affected by trauma. For the pre-recorded performance, actors spread out on the main stage at Karamu House as if taking part in a community discussion over Zoom. Tempered with musical numbers and hard-hitting discussions, the performance was geared to inspire audience members to act and carry on discussions at home and in public spaces.
“Social justice has always been central to Karamu, and we asked ourselves how, in this virtual space, could we continue the conversation around key issues in the community?” says Sias. “We have to not only entertain but continue to educate and respond to these social issues with the goal of activating the community to take responsibility for making change.”
The second episode, which airs today, focuses on why voting is so important. Sias shares his perspective on the importance of creating new content in a virtual space while also shedding light on the upcoming episode and season ahead.
Q: The first episode of Freedom After Juneteenth focused on police brutality and Black trauma. Why was it important for you to start the series there?
A: That is the largest issue in our country today. Civil unrest is centered on the lack of respect for Black lives. Through this experience, we see Black and Brown people have been killed and murdered, and we need to deal with the impact of that. That generational trauma is something we have to live with on a daily basis. As people of color, others don’t understand the impact of that trauma. Being able to use the arts as a vehicle to trigger dialogue about the impact of this trauma was important to us.
Q: What were some of the challenges of creating that first episode?
A: The process was similar to most theater experiences’ rehearsal process with the exception that we put this show up after four days. What was different is that up until the time that we’re shooting, the actors are in our masks. We started staging on the stage, you still are masked. You're on the stage, singing with a mask on. The whole process is masked up until the time that we’re shooting.
Q: What were some of the bright spots of the virtual approach?
A: For the performers, friends and family outside of the region get to see the work. So, between Freedom on Juneteenth and the first episode of Freedom After Juneteenth, we’ve had over 100,000 viewers. We are reaching a whole new audience that we never would have been able to reach had we not gone over into the virtual space.
Q: What can viewers expect from episode two?
A: A huge part of Freedom on Juneteenth was having what we call griots, the keepers of lists and legends in some African cultures. And so, we bring these ancestors back in episode two to begin to educate one of the lead characters, Roderick, about the historical trajectory of African Americans and voting in this country. One of the things that our playwright Latecia has done that was brilliant, was to bring the idea of the griots and the ancestors back to serve an important role to communicate to a millennial about why it's important to vote.
Q: How has this process helped you see the role of theater or Karamu House in a different way?
A: The entertainment industry has been one of the hardest hit industries as a result of this pandemic. With pride, Karamu has been able to put some artists to work, put some designers to work, put some actors to work. And so that’s really been important to be able to say that everything was taken away from you — everything’s at a freeze. Karamu was proud to be able to be able to provide some work for artists in the community at this time.
theater & dance
7:00 AM EST
September 24, 2020