Performance deals with often-ignored struggles
Scarred by war abroad and conflict at home, one family struggles to stay together amid the tension. This is the plot of the play “Proud N---- to Soldier,” performed on Saturday in West Philadelphia.
Written by poet AF Black, the story was set during the 1970s, the Vietnam era.
The lead character, Foster, played by Denzell Jones, has just returned from serving his tour in Vietnam, but found himself confronted by both personal changes and the newly emerging Black Power movement in which his little brother, played by Gary Mapp, is deeply engaged.
“This play started with conversations I had with my uncle about Vietnam, about his being lost there in the jungle for about three months,” he said.
Black also recalled his grandfather’s stories about war and the problems both men faced as they tried to readjust after returning home.
“I wanted to tell a story that focused on how it affected my uncle and my grandfather,” he said.
Although set in the Vietnam era, many of the challenges facing the characters in the play, social dislocation, racial discrimination and reentry into society, can be seen in many Black households in America.
According to statistics, 1 of 3 Black males between ages 18 and 25 will be incarcerated and removed from the home. Many will leave behind children of their own; children of incarcerated parents are statistically more likely to engage in delinquent behavior in school and nearly twice as likely to become incarcerated.
Not unlike the lead character in Black’s production, this group will face difficulty returning to life in the free world.
“The story is about family and about how Black liberation and the Vietnam War simultaneously affected the Black family,” said Black, noting that while the play was centered on the circumstances of the 1970s, he didn’t want it to be a 1970s play.
“I really wanted to focus on family and the difficulty in finding balance,” he said.
After the performance, there was dialogue in which the audience had a chance to engage with the actors and producers of the play.
“We have gotten into going to see something, going to the movies or watching television and not being able to talk back to it or question it,” said Black, who describes this pattern as a “picture frame” mentality where, like paintings, we observe and leave without engagement or input.
“That’s not how theater began,” he said. “Theaters would cause riots in the streets. I wanted to bring that back to the community so we don’t just sit there and take it, we talk back to it and it can talk back to you; it’s a living art.”
Actress Shaina Lynn Simmons played the role of Lillian, a woman faced with the task of holding her family together through crisis. Simmons served as acting coach for the other performers in the play and said that preparing for the role also expanded her awareness as well.
“I grew a greater understanding for women and the transition that we have gone through in life,” she said. “Our role has been to keep the family together, but it has changed so much by how we have been affected by certain things, whether it was war or violence in the community.”
The play was produced by Nubi Ra.
To learn more about future performances, go online www.josephxaviermack.com.
Simmons said one of the most fulfilling aspects of the production was the response and feedback she received from the audience.
“We need this feedback, because it’s community involvement that’s going to keep the artists together and alive in the community,” she said.