October 19, 2015

On the Corner, On Our Minds: American Racism

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I have a terrible memory. I’ve tried writing reminders to myself on rainbow Sticky Notes, tying knotted rope around my fingers and devising mnemonic devices like EFT (Eat Food Today) to no avail. Yet, my brain seems to recall perfectly my viewing of On the Corner, a Civic Ensemble show I saw right before I skipped town for Fall Break.



Civic Ensemble is an Ithaca based community group that uses theater as a vehicle to educate and inform its audiences about critical cultural and sociopolitical issues. The group prides itself on telling the stories of people of color, women and minorities whose experiences have yet to be fully validated and acknowledged in the world of film, television, theater and media.

On the Corner written by Sarah K. Chalmers and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., was no deviation from Civic Ensemble’s commitment to social justice theater. It told the story of Julian, an African American teenager, attempting to navigate his life; his youthful indecision, the death of his mother and the radical racial divisions that plague America today.

In fact, On the Corner actually begins with Julian, played by Jharrel Jerome (a freshman at Ithaca College), being detained by a cop after wandering the streets of Cayuga Heights, pondering the recent death of his mother. Only later is it revealed that a neighbor, Mrs. Whitney, called the police on him because she thought he looked suspicious. When she encounters the young, innocuous Julian and it becomes obvious that he’s not a threat, Mrs. Whitney refuses to admit that there was any bias to her decision.

The play doesn’t merely expose contemporary racial disparities, but a dynamic chorus of voices over time (not unlike one you would see in Oedipus Rex or Lysistrata) that takes the audience as far back as the 1700s, in order to demonstrate that these incongruences have always existed. Suddenly, it is 1715 and we are witnessing an African slave trade market, where a dumbfounded Julian has traveled through time. “See this boy? He’s ready for work,” the auctioneer instructs. The starting amount for Julian is $100 but he winds up being sold for a mere $45. The boy’s mother (played by Sylvie Yntema, the same actress who plays Julian’s mother in consequent scenes) is distraught and sings a haunting song about losing her son.

We then travel through time to 1790 and find ourselves witnessing a debate between Northerners and Southerners about slavery’s place in America. The verdict: Slavery was ingrained in the American economy even before there was an actual Constitution. We don’t often recognize this, because we are too focused on the “strides” we have made. As it is pointed out to us, Ruth Simmons became the first black president of any Ivy League Institution in 2000; Brown University’s 18th president. However, we’re less likely to discuss the fact that Brown University was built with slave labor (or that Cornell is built on Cayuga land, for that matter).

A trip back to 2005 then teaches us that many extremely successful businesses like Tiffany & Co. still reap the benefits of the free slave labor they received in their early years. However, On the Corner is not simply a scathing critique of the wrongs of our past, but an unglorified acknowledgment of the hopes of our future. The play discusses Wachovia CEO, Ken Thompson, who, upon discovering Wachovia’s ties to slavery in 2005 apologized: “We know that we cannot change the past, and we can’t make up for the wrongs of slavery” said Thompson. “But we can learn from our past, and begin a stronger dialogue about slavery and the experience of African-Americans in our country.”

Another strength of On the Corner was its inclusion and respect for all perspectives. In a poem that repeated by multiple members of the cast who stood among the audience, a multiplicity of ethnicities and perspectives was represented. A “milky white” woman acknowledges that her skin color affords her privileges, while another woman states that her skin color makes her afraid because she “might say the wrong thing to a person of color.”

Perhaps my favorite part of the play, however, was not an aspect of the performance, but rather, the discussion that followed the production. Those involved were asked to discuss how they thought these issues of racial injustice could be addressed and what our next steps should be. We were encouraged to discuss our ideas to a stranger and write them on a banner.

I thought this was an incredible idea because oftentimes, while we may be impacted by something upon seeing it, we forget about its message in bustle of our daily lives (Kony 2012, anyone?). The discussion following the play addressed this idea, reconfirming that this is something we need to be actively thinking about — something that we don’t have the luxury to forget among life’s many banalities. How can someone like me help? How can someone like you help? Civic Ensemble forced me and all members to become implicated in the racial divisions and aggressions embedded in our society.

Gwen Aviles is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].