Creators of a new musical pursue healing and reconciliation

Sanitation workers discuss their protest with the mayor of Memphis in a musical based on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, “Union: The Musical.”  Photo by Alex Maness

“Union: A Musical” tells the story of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. But its real purpose is to spark a conversation about racial and economic justice in the communities where it is performed.

The shimmering beat of high-hat cymbals filled the theater as the cast of “Union: A Musical,” clad in jean jackets, suits and ’60s-era dresses, flooded into the aisles. Dancing and chanting, they urged the sold-out crowd in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to get on their feet, singing and raising hands in praise.

As the chorus crescendoed, the audience joined in with the words that framed the opening and closing of the rap musical about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike:

“We the people, we the people,” they chanted along with the cast. “Got something to say, got something to say.”

Even after the five main cast members and 15 ensemble actors took their bows, the chant was still rippling through the crowd. In the post-performance emptiness of the top-floor women’s lounge, two women harmonized the refrain, stomping their feet along to the beat.

“We the people, we the people” they sang. “Got something to say, got something to say.”

Are there opportunities in your work to communicate through the arts?

“Union: A Musical” was created in 2018 in Memphis as part of the city’s observance of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The show is now on the road, with its first performance in Winston-Salem in February. It uses rap music and step dancing-influenced choreography to portray the historical event and explore the intricacies of economic justice and systemic dehumanization, as well as the ways that love and faith work together to create a radical vision of equality.

The musical’s co-creators, Amisho “Sho” Baraka and Greg Thompson, see its purpose as multifold. They want to share the history of the sanitation strike, the event that brought King to Memphis before he was assassinated.

But they also want to encourage communities to engage in difficult conversations about the themes in the play -- racial inequity, labor abuse, economic justice and activism -- in their own local contexts.

activism on stage
The Rev. James Lawson, played by Justin Merrick, leads his congregation in a chant. Photo by Alex Maness

The morning after the performance in Winston-Salem, a four-hour interactive forum gathered speakers, a panel and people from churches and the community for a wide-ranging discussion that tackled racism, economic inequality and police violence. About 600 people took part in the event, which was hosted by a coalition of local groups.

“We’re portraying the realities on the stage and then meeting with the people and the leaders of the city and the citizens of the city and trying to help free voices to talk about these things,” said Thompson, a Presbyterian pastor and the managing director of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

“We’re in a time in America where these are not just theoretically critical issues, but people are literally getting killed,” he said.

The music brings people together, but that’s just the start, said executive producer Anasa Troutman.

“This is the beginning of a journey that you all are going to take together,” Troutman told the crowd after the performance. “Look around the room. The people here came here not only because they wanted to see a show but because they want to do the work of healing our country.”

Telling the story in Memphis

For the week of April 4, 2018, Clayborn Temple, was planning a commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Union flyer
Playbill for the musical

The historic church had been a gathering place for civil rights and labor activists during the 1968 sanitation workers strike; the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. James Lawson, had helped create the “I am a man” signs that became icons of the struggle.

As the anniversary approached, the church hired Thompson, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on King at the University of Virginia, as a consultant on the project. Thompson suggested that they tell the history of the temple and the strike, rather than just focusing on the assassination.

He pitched the idea of drawing on Memphis’ rich musical tradition and casting local actors to tell the story in an engaging way.

How can you tell your story in ways that are unique to your community?

“They said, ‘Do you know how to do that?’ and I said, ‘Well, not really, but I’d like to try,’” Thompson said.

He and Atlanta-based rapper Sho Baraka -- whom he’d met the year before at the Q Ideas conference -- worked with a team of six people to write the script and music and to perform the show. Baraka and Thompson collaborated long-distance and traveled to New York to meet with actors from “Hamilton” to get ideas.

Baraka
Actor Justin Merrick, who plays the Rev. James Lawson, gets his mic adjusted backstage. Photo by Alex Maness

Thompson described the process as an “incarnational” and “democratic” method. He was the only white member of the team. They had constant conversations about the development of power and support within the group, and how best to collaborate.

Are you intentional in your process, as well as in your message? In other words, do you practice what you preach?

One of their creative decisions was not to include King as a character in the play. Despite the historical significance of King’s presence, they wanted to shine light on the people whose stories often go untold -- the women of the civil rights movement, the men in the strike, the children.

“One individual, Dr. James Lawson, … doesn’t get far enough credit for his contribution to the civil rights and the nonviolence movement, and the women who contributed as well,” Baraka said at a Q panel about the show. “If we can just reimagine how our union can exist, and also tell the truth, I think we can see better reparation and repair happen in the future.”

“Union” was performed in Memphis April 6-8, 2018, as part of a slate of MLK events. Even though the events were commemorating King’s assassination, the creators of “Union” still wanted to keep the focus on the community, holding a community workshop before the April 8 show and having members of Black Lives Matter speak at the talk-back after the show.

“Rightfully so, we should exalt King, and we should talk about his legacy, but oftentimes what we do is we miss the nuances of the individuals and the leaders that he partnered with, and I think this story is one that is even relatable to today,” Baraka said at the Q panel.

Taking the show on the road

After the initial performances, the “Union” team got pitches from a host of cities wanting to bring the musical to their communities.

on stage
The cast of "Union: The Musical" onstage at their first touring performance in Winston-Salem. Photo by Alex Maness

They chose Winston-Salem as their first stop, in part because the city’s history of economic and racial struggles matched the ones they were addressing in the play.

Thompson also had personal connections to the city through the Rev. Giorgio Hiatt of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and Don Flow, a local businessman and philanthropist. Hiatt, who saw the show in Memphis, suggested that The Forum on Faith & Culture host the performance in Winston-Salem. Flow and his wife Robbin are members of The Forum on Faith & Culture, an organization that hosts an annual weekend event. The group decided to host the musical instead of bringing in a speaker. 

The pairing worked for both groups: the musical team could tap into an established local network, and The Forum on Faith & Culture could try something new.

It’s the first trial of a model the creators hope to replicate in other cities, with a host committee of black and white leaders building a network that continues to gather long after the performance is over. The team is also open to community input on the musical itself, possibly shifting the emphasis, adding songs, thickening and shaping the characters in light of audience feedback.

“As much as it’s a play, it’s a community engagement strategy to try to help communities have the conversations that they need to have,” Thompson said.

For almost 20 years, Bishop Sir Walter L. Mack Jr. has been the bishop of Union Baptist Church, where the Saturday event was held. Union Baptist’s ministry is unapologetically Christian, but they also deal with the social issues that ail people in the African-American community and in the larger community, Mack said.

So when Mack was approached with the idea to host the forum at Union Baptist, there was just a “natural connect” with their shared missions, he said.

“Not to mention that the name of the play is ‘Union,’ and the name of our church is ‘Union.’ So it was a perfect union,” Mack said.

Mack said that the forum bridged the gap between communities, and showed that people of all socio-economic, racial and denominational backgrounds can productively explore the things they have in common, rather than the things that tear people apart.

“Every city needs to have this kind of forum, it was probably one of the most optimistic experiences I’ve seen in Winston-Salem in a long time, and I’m from Winston-Salem, I grew up here,” he said.

The original version of the show had obvious connections to Memphis -- and robust local community involvement -- but when the team decided to create a touring version, they had to find ways to foster conversation unique to other places.

Are there creative ways you could host intentional conversations about important issues in your community?

Members of The Forum on Faith & Culture knew that to make this project work, they'd need to ensure that the planning team was diverse and inclusive of the city. Members of the Forum teamed up with representatives from the black community to form a 13-member commission, facilitated by Chuck Spong, executive director of the nonprofit Love Out Loud, a collective of churches and individuals.

Over the five-month planning process, that commission met monthly with a council of about 80 thought leaders and advisers to broaden the network even further. This process was important in ensuring that the people and organizations already pursuing healing and social justice were truly represented, Spong said.

“White people have this penchant to co-opt this deep message about beloved community because we want to feel good about reconciliation,” Spong said. “How is this not just one weekend and done? It becomes [part of] a larger conversation that has been going on for many years.”

‘Two Winston-Salems, One Body of Christ’

Once the music ended in Winston-Salem, the hard work began.

About 600 people gathered at Union Baptist Church the Saturday after the performance to pray and talk about the issues facing their city.

Terrance Hawkins, of the youth organization LIT City, an initiative of Love Out Loud, stood at the wooden podium in front of the crowd and urged people to focus more on the “Lamb slain,” not the “donkey and elephant agenda.”

Tackling the themes of the “Union” show means that people need to address racial issues, not ignore them, he said. The goal is not to be colorblind. “The glory of God is to see color,” he said.

Union Baptist Church
About 600 people gather at Union Baptist church to attend "Next Steps 2019," a forum that followed the musical presentation. Photo by Katie Rosso

Hawkins moderated a seven-member panel discussion titled “Two Winston-Salems, One Body of Christ: Towards a Revolutionary Oneness.”

“I emphasize revolutionary oneness because too often, if I’m being quite frank, the dialogues around race that are happening in this social and political moment are more about absolution than resolution,” he said.

“We believe the Spirit is calling us on to something that is revolutionary, something that doesn’t hold up the status quo but that disrupts it.

Does your work hold up the status quo or disrupt it?

“The conversation we are embarking on today is dangerous. It’s jarring, it’s painful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.

Dr. Melicia Whitt-Glover, a community-based researcher on the panel, spoke about the Winston-Salem Foundation’s Black Philanthropy Initiative and the importance of spreading the word about organizations and people that are doing compelling work.

“All of you are here because you care,” she said. “There are many more people who are not here. Tell somebody else what you know, so we can get the word out.”

The panel also explored the theme of the city’s dual character. White people in Winston-Salem have access and opportunity; black people experience “dispossession, oppression and inequity,” noted the introduction to a resource handout given to participants.

Don and Robbin Flow wrote a letter in the musical’s playbill arguing that art can be used as a new window into engaging with these “profoundly tragic” issues.

“Art offers an avenue to understand the past with a new perspective, to see the present with new eyes, and imagine a different reality for the future,” they wrote.

sidestage
​​​​​Shamar Rooks, right, who played sanitation worker T.O Jones, waits with another cast member for his cue. Photo by Alex Maness

The forum’s handout booklet offered “a starting point” for a way forward: book recommendations; a guide to local organizations, programs and events; a suggested to-do list; and resources for learning about the history of racism and economic justice in America.

“Doing a big event can be incredibly resource-intensive for a very low yield of activity,” Spong said. “What happens when they walk out the door?”

The event had more than 25 sponsors and more than 35 partner churches. As it ended, 266 people from 53 churches signed commitment cards to continue the process of engaging with racial and economic justice. Spong said the information on the cards already has been digitized and shared with nonprofits, and a mailing list with more than 1,000 emails has been created to keep in touch with those who took part in the event.

In addition to the booklet of resources, Love Out Loud has an online portal to help people stay connected.

How could you encourage your congregation or others to keep up the momentum after a large and inspiring event?

Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch, who, along with his wife, Julie, was involved in the project, wrote a column in the Winston-Salem Journal after the event describing it as “a catalyzing moment in the life of our city.”

“True leadership emerges from the desire to invite others into conversation,” he wrote. “Where pain and hurt run deep, let our compassion and grace run deeper still.”

What the future holds

The creators aren’t completely sure of what “Union” will become -- and that’s part of the beauty of the collaborative process, Thompson said.

The team hopes to begin working on a documentary film about the creation of “Union,” as well as a soundtrack of the music from the show. Broadway is the most conventional national platform for musicals, but Broadway doesn’t have a model for a musical that goes hand in hand with community engagement.

after the show
The cast gathers to warm up and prepare before the performance. Photo by Alex Maness

Representatives from multiple cities attended the show and the follow-up event to talk to Thompson and Baraka and see whether “Union” would be a good fit for their communities. More than 20 have now requested that the group bring “Union” to their cities.

For the musical, as well as for Winston-Salem, this is just the beginning.

In 1619, the first slave ship left West Africa and came to the Americas.

“Four hundred years have gone by,” Troutman said. “Now, we have to be prepared to do the hardest work of our lives, the most heart-wrenching work of our lives, the most painful work of our lives, the most important work of our lives -- we have to do it together.”

Questions to consider

  • “Union: The Musical” uses rap music and step dancing-influenced choreography to engage people in difficult conversations about social justice. Are there opportunities in your work to communicate through the arts?
  • The musical draws on Memphis musical traditions. How can you tell your story in ways that are unique to your community?
  • Are you intentional in your process, as well as in your message? In other words, do you practice what you preach?
  • Are there creative ways you could host intentional conversations about important issues in your community?
  • Does your work hold up the status quo or disrupt it?
  • How could you encourage your congregation or others to keep up the momentum after a large and inspiring event?