POSTED ON JUNE 13, 2012:
One Woman, One Cause
Tulsa actor takes on 24 roles for her SummerStage show
It's not often one encounters a performer who needs help staying on task when that task is talking about her upcoming project. But that's exactly who Vanessa Adams-Harris is. When asked about her upcoming SummerStage offering, The Syringa Tree, she immediately launches into a history lesson involving the Tulsa race riots of 1921, racial inequality, and the blank spaces in our history books where the names of prominent African Americans have been forgotten.
She starts with the organization presenting The Syringa Tree, the Center for Racial Justice. It's a nonprofit that has pretty much zero connection to theater other than the fact that Adams-Harris works in the same church building where CRJ is housed.
"No, it's not a theater organization at all," she said, seeming taken aback by any implication otherwise. "It's a nonprofit community organization working on exactly what its name says: racial justice."
A good reporter would interrupt here and ask something along the lines of, "Well, then how has CRJ come to produce a show in SummerStage?"
And that good reporter would be denied by Adams-Harris, because once she gets on a role, well, it's best to get the hell out of the way and just listen -- and listen carefully -- because she can talk really fast.
She quickly outlined CRJ's look at the Tulsa race riots and its ongoing attempts to procure reparations for the victims, the surviving family members, and the city of Tulsa. She also refers to some successes, but does so in a way that leads one to believe that she's not all that satisfied.
"A few years ago, a group of citizens was able to gather some contributions and give small donations to the surviving family members, but we haven't ever gotten anything official from the state," she said. "It's still a struggle for the city and philanthropists and the state to deal with this issue. I want to bring awareness through the Center for Racial Justice to say, 'This is still an ongoing dialog that needs to be discussed,'" she said.
And it's here, in the eighth paragraph of a story about The Syringa Tree, that The Syringa Tree makes its appearance.
The play itself was written by Pamela Gien and tells the story of Elizabeth Grace, a white child living in apartheid-era South Africa. As a one-performer show, the piece requires its star to portray 24 characters as its tale spans four generations and involves young and old, black and white, English and Zulu, men and women. It's a tough undertaking, but it's about even tougher issues.
"I just feel like this is one way to try to get a conversation going," Adams-Harris said. "We all know South Africa's history on apartheid, and America's history of civil rights and Jim Crow laws and such. Apartheid is where you keep yourself apart from one another, and this is what we have here in Tulsa."
Just exactly how Adams-Harris and SummerStage and The Syringa Tree ended up in the same sentence ends up being something of a happy accident.
"The play actually found me. I'm a solo performer, and I do social-type issues and things like this. I won a Feldman award [the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa's 2005 Jingle Feldman Individual Artist award] for my Rosa Parks piece, I did "Big Mama Speaks," which Hannibal B. Johnson wrote," she said. The Johnson piece, she said, is the story of one survivor of the 1921 racial violence in Tulsa.
While contemplating the disappearing nature of many amazing women from the pages of history, an actor friend called Adams-Harris to tell her about this show she'd just seen.
The producer was fellow thespian Dr. Joan Kole, who Adams-Harris knew through their mutual affiliation with the American Association of Community Theaters.
"She had seen me a few times and knew my acting capabilities. She said, 'I need you to come see this show, because you can do this,'" Adams-Harris recalled. "And it just blew me away, because I knew what she meant. So I thought we'd put it up for SummerStage and try to bring out some things people can talk about."
It is to be noted that she said this in a completely nonchalant way, as if it is a daily activity to find something to provoke people into talking about the fact that America, even today, with a black man in the Oval Office, remains completely flummoxed by race.
The production to which Dr. Kole took Adams-Harris was in Wisconsin. Once there, the actor saw a world of possibilities in the one-woman show unfolding before her.
"I saw a white woman doing a piece about her country and her land and the people of the land, and they were black people and white people," Adams-Harris said. "And I saw her do it with such care and with the delicacy of our human existence, and I thought, 'If we can sit in an audience and watch a white woman play a little girl, older men, black and white women, then how much of a stretch would it be to watch a woman of color do that?"
"It literally puts you in the place of the other person. You can see how they feel. And maybe, by understanding how they feel, you can see things differently, and as humans, and not as people or things to be controlled," she said.
Finally, Adams-Harris spoke of the necessity of communication. While pretty much everyone recognizes its importance in our lives, the actor points specifically to its importance in our ability to learn from our past and move productively forward.
"If we don't share these thoughts and have a dialog about them," she said, "then it's hard for people to really understand another side."
Without understanding, we run the risk of returning to the xenophobia and fear of our past.
"Which time in our history are you referring to, Brad?" you ask.
Adams-Harris brings her theatrical attempt at fostering understanding to the Charles E. Norman Theater at the Performing Arts Center downtown June 15 and 16 and 7:30pm and June 17 at 2pm. Tickets are $10 and are available through the PAC's website at tulsapac.com, through the box office at 918-596-7111, or in person.
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