Theatre Review: 20th Anniversary of Greensboro Massacre

BY MICHAEL SCHREIBER

 

“Here we are, niggers!’

“Come and get us.”

“Get them!” “Kill them!”

That is how a 1979 article in the Greensboro Daily News begins, as an on-the-scene reporter tries to describe the horror of the Greensboro Massacre.

On Nov. 3, 1979, a number of anti-racist activists-led by members of the Communist Workers Party-organized a rally in the Black community of Greensboro, North Carolina. They were protesting the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which had recently begun a recruiting drive in the area.

Suddenly, a couple of cars arrived. A dozen or more Klansmen and American Nazis jumped out and opened fire. In the end five people were dead and many others critically wounded.

The Daily News reporter writes: “I heard glass shattering everywhere amid the screams and cracks of gunfire. … Crouching behind a car across the street from the massacre, I watched in horror for what seemed like hours. People were still running, some of them falling. Blood was spurting in the air just like in the movies.”

Now on the 20th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre, San Francisco’s Unconditional Theatre commemorates the event by performing Emily Mann’s drama, “Greensboro: A Requiem.”

Emily Mann is artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where “Greensboro” first opened in 1996. She employs a documentary technique in the play that, according to the playwright, allows people involved in the massacre to “say in their own words what had happened to them.”

The drama largely consists of court testimony and other factual evidence, including segments of interviews that the playwright conducted with people who had been on the scene-both survivors and Klansmen alike. This is underscored by photographs, slogans, and commentary projected above the stage.

The personal accounts of the participants, given in colloquial speech, are heart-rending and, at times, surprisingly poetic. Unfortunately, the playwright has far too many characters talking to the audience to enable us to single them out as individuals and focus on what really makes them tick. In this production, 13 actors portray a staggering 33 roles.

The Unconditional Theatre would have been well advised to simplify the script, pare down some of the more long-winded monologues, and try to highlight the interactions between the characters.

But the production does get into the minds of a few of the participants-such as Eddie Dawson (played by Nick Scoggin), a Klan member who worked as a snitch for the Greensboro police and the FBI. As the playwright (played a bit too impassively by Wendy Wilcox) interviews Dawson, he toys with his questioner like a cat with a mouse.

Bit by bit, Dawson provides clues as to how the police and federal authorities acted as provocateurs within the Klan. He even hints that the police helped to set up the Greensboro Massacre. It is curious that the police were conveniently absent during the attack-although they showed up immediately after it was over.

The Klansmen project a cool arrogance in their interviews with Mann. Of course, one might say that they have good reason for their guiltless attitude, since after three court trials nobody went to jail for the killings.

On the other hand, most of the survivors of the massacre appear broken in spirit. The sum of their testimony is dark and pessimistic.

One former anti-racist activist asserts that since the 1971 Klan attack he has not participated in a single protest rally. “They [the Klan] got what they wanted,” he says. “It’s 15 years later and I’m still quiet.”

A married couple (the husband was partly paralyzed by a Klan bullet) states that they no longer consider themselves Marxists-merely “vaguely progressive.” They are no longer active in political causes, the wife explains, because, “I don’t want my children to get hurt.”

Only the Rev. Nelson Johnson, a one-time Communist Workers Party supporter who after the massacre went back to the church, projects a dignified optimism. Johnson (Mujadid Abdul-Rashid) points out in a sermon that “dying is not the worst thing in the world … we’re all gonna die-why don’t we stand for something while we’re living?”

But even Johnson can offer little more than platitudes-ie., “on the other side of suffering, there is joy”-and is unable to suggest a plan for the future.

Toward the end of the play, “Greensboro” is brought chillingly up to date as an Ivy-League-jacketed David Duke, former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, attempts to provide a modern rationale for racism. He explains, “Europeans built this country. … If we lose that, we lose America.”

And then a skinhead youth comes on stage and carries the same message in starker terms: “We are the Master Race-enslaved by the Jews. … We have to prepare for war!”

If a racist “war” is in preparation, what can be done? “Greensboro: A Requiem” identifies the problem but remains vague-and even pessimistic-about the solution.

And yet, on Oct. 23, just as this play opened in San Francisco, over 8000 people gathered in New York City to protest a rally by 16 Klansmen. Many of the protesters called for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal. This shows that it is possible to mount effective mobilizations against racism!