Ensemble Blog #3 – This Is (Ain’t) No Unique Situation: A Question Unanswered (New Orleans)

Ensemble Blog #3 – This Is (Ain’t) No Unique Situation: A Question Unanswered (New Orleans)

For each tour city where Progress Theatre travels to perform, one of our ensemble members uses this blog to reflect on new insights, discoveries, questions and conversations we encounter as we engage with audiences and communities across the country. We share this “Ensemble Blog” as another way of following the tour, continuing the post-show dialogues often started with our audiences, and mapping our journeys “in progress”–literally and figuratively.

“This Is (Ain’t) No Unique Situation: A Question Unanswered”

The genesis of my work with Progress Theatre (PT) began as an academic one. In late 2009, as I was preparing to make my exit from the Theatre Program at Prairie View A&M University as a successful graduate, I was internally unsettled. Full of life and bursting with self-worth, I just knew that I was ready for the greatest of challenges and deserving of the highest successes. I was ready to “live the dream.” See, the foundation for such charged feelings was not rooted in pride, arrogance at successes-to-date, or even, as a young actor, equating fame with my success. It was more of what I thought to be a well-deserved reciprocity. I grew up with a belief system of my own that saw great success in direct relationship to great struggle. Simply put, since there was so much endured in my life, come graduation, I felt that life would do its part and give me great success equally.

Immediately post-graduation, peers that were still fulfilling their degrees, and knowing that I was seeking “extreme training,” had been in my ear about a new instructor that was changing everything that they knew about their art, and was extremely challenging. So, I sought out the instructor, asked to observe the course and technique, and later asked to join the course at whatever expense to myself. The instructor tested my intentions, tested my instrument, and allowed me to join the course for the semester…for free. That was the genesis of my work with Dr. Cristal Chanelle Truscott and Progress Theatre.


In mid-March 2015, PT was in residency with The Burnin’ at New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center, and hosted by Junebug Productions. Following each performance, we hold an open dialogue with the audience in a shared, micro-community format, for everyone to share experiences and reactions to The Burnin’ in a safe-space that we (the ensemble) protect and hold. The purpose is to incite and create the cross-community dialogue that is required of us all in this grand, shared space of the world. To use words from PT’s mission statement: “By engaging various communities onstage and off, PT strives to change the make-up of average theatergoers, encouraging audiences diverse in race, age/generation and spiritual background. The dream and intention of PT’s work is to explore the most compelling, honest, unflinching ways of approaching questions of humanity, and the social concerns and insights of our times inclusive of race, class, gender and spiritual identity— in the service of unity through diversity, cross-community healing and understanding.” In New Orleans, an audience member asked, in a nutshell: “How do you all portray these characters so clearly and effectively? Are these characters you?” My response, in a nutshell, “These characters, though we share in their environments, are not written of our own experiences. It’s as trained artists and through our ensemble work, we are capable of creating clear and effective art, this strong, without it being autobiographical.” The truth is that I lied. I mean, the piece isn’t a page from my autobiography. I didn’t write it. And I wasn’t the source research or creative material for the playwright. But, my truth is more complicated. My truth is that there is almost no experience written into The Burnin that I have not experienced in my own life. My truth is that I am, or have been, nearly all of the stereotypes we seek to dissemble in our work. The more difficult truth was that for some purpose, this question made me face every other experience in which I’ve lied about where and what I come from. Had I answered his question truthfully and sincerely, I may have responded to him like this: Yes, I am the characters that I represent. I am Crush, with no father near me, raised into manhood by his grandfather and hero until death stripped him away.

• Yes, I do come from a space where there is no out, and the systems that support the people of those spaces are not systems of healing and progress; where generations, even the ones nearest to me, have nearly all fallen to one system or another.

The men, stripped and broken, never return to me the same, after repeated and undeserving incarceration.

The men and women who fell to –and are still in the grasps of– drugs that somehow consistently make it into our communities, of which we have no ownership.

The literal gun-spraying and violent streets where we can’t afford to even traverse with a smile, or risk another fight to defend what you do have to protect it on a daily basis.

I am Topper Jr., who was trained to perpetuate a system, dreamed beyond it, and had no alternative but to, “breaks through the boards” all around me just for the opportunity to make it. I am Topper Sr., who once had no faith, but came to believe there “ain’t no way out” as he says.

I grew up with the peers who had so much to endure that they took their own lives at 14.

In the time that I have succeeded in college, gotten married, and begun to forge my career, a high school classmate and friend who was imprisoned after simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is just now set free in 2015.

As he is set free, a loving, giving, working uncle and elder dear to my heart is being sent right back into imprisonment, his life irreparably on hold and in danger, just to cover the state’s profits in court fees from his last imprisonment.

As Crush says, “You born in the Sittay, you come up in the Sittay, you die in the Sittay. It’s only a matter of time.” It is not just a line for me or you, it is a truth for many. So, I am every bit of every character I represent. But their stories do not belong to me. Their stories are shared.

I may have family and friends who are tainted by the prison system, now with no supportive means for a way out, but I am not the only one.

I may have family and friends who are burdened with drug addiction all around me, but I am not the only one.

I may have family and friends still dealing, generations later, with the symptoms of the post-traumatic slave syndrome, but I am not the only one.

I grew up in an environment, a system that was not designed to help me, a young Black male, to be as successful as I possibly can reach, but I am not the only one.

The experiences of Crush, Topper Jr., and Topper Sr. are not my stories specifically, but they are mine. And I am not the only one.


Fortunately, I had an immensely loving, multidisciplinary, spiritually-rooted mother who drove us to nothing short of excellence, just so that when opportunity arrived, we were not overlooked. We had to fight in both our spiritual organizations and in our academic spaces just for the system to see us. And, I am here today a successful artist, college graduate, husband and man. I ask you to see just SOME of what my neighbors, my peers, my friends, my uncles, my aunts, my people have in their hearts and dreams right now. As a boy, I thought that my great struggles meant that I should have great success. As a man, that same foundational hardship means nothing short of a call for urgency. My life experiences have made change, healing, and progress urgent for all of those in our communities who are still living and dying in those spaces.

So, to this unnamed house member who asked a question deserving of the truth, I apologize and I commit. To those from the spaces where I am from, and those in spaces like them, I apologize and commit. Our lives matter and need to be greatly supported, loved and healed right now. For the title of this blog, I borrowed a line from a character in The Burnin’ named Timer. As explains a lifetime of surviving through prison, he says, “This ain’t no unique situation,” because that experience doesn’t just belong to Timer. It belongs to all of us who share in the story and experience–which inescapably includes us all, across every community. Just as Timer’s line is shared, so are our experiences. And so shared is our call to respond.

Read Derrick’s bio here.

⇐⇐ Read Ensemble Blog #2: “Progress and Healing” by Rebekah

Read Ensemble Blog #4: “Sankofa” by Tiana ⇒⇒

Progress Theatre

May 7th, 2015

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