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Karamu Speaks To Unrest Sparked By George Floyd's Killing

Darelle Hill performs "George Floyd's Mama" [Wonderhouse Films]
A masked Darelle Hill holds his arms out from his side with images of social protest on a banner behind him

June 19th marks the African-American celebration known as Juneteenth, honoring the day in 1865 that black slaves in Texas first learned slavery had been abolished. Cleveland’s Karamu theater company is staging a special production that brings this historic observance into the current moment. 

The virtual presentation will include mutiple performances, including one where six dancers sweep across a dimly-lit stage, dark facemasks over their mouths and hair wrapped in dark fabric. They link arms and form an embracing circle. Then, one dancer breaks away and falls down. Another stoops next to her and pushes her neck to the floor. Karamu CEO Tony Sias said this scene is a response to an image seared into the brains of millions of Americans.

Performers dance for "Freedom on Juneteenth" [Kayla Lupean]

“To witness a murder on television that wasn't a TV show, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “At one point, I just became completely numb.”

The cellphone video of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop and the subsequent outpouring of rage in cities across the nation inspired Sias to create a theatrical production that could channel some of that rage and sadness and disbelief. In a week’s time, he assembled a group of dancers, musicians and poets to create a virtual performance of mostly original works, with an occasional nod to some classical sources, like a relevant reading from Shakespeare.

Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means..., If you prick us, do we not bleed? – from “The Merchant of Venice”

Sias is using the observance of Juneteenth as a focal point for this live-streamed production, which he hopes will promote healing, education, and activism in the form of voter registration and other types of civic engagement.

“Let's go on a historical journey from June 19,1865, to now, and land today in a country that has a dual pandemic,” he said

Fighting the disease of racism has long been a part of Karamu’s history. Founded over a century ago as an arts center that catered to the cultural needs of European immigrants and African Americans from the South, Karamu is home to the country’s oldest black theater company. 33-year-old Darelle Hill grew-up knowing that tradition.

"It had a reputation for me from childhood field trips and things like that,” he said.

Hill will be one of the performers seen on stage Friday for the Karamu production of “Freedom on Juneteenth.” Towards the end of the program, he has a monologue written by Cleveland poet Mary Weems, “George Floyd’s Mama.”

Mama’s an African word.

When I heard George Floyd’s 

shout, he took me 

all the way back

to how we got here.

Back to most of our first words,

how we learned to speak,

walk, hold hands, cry.

I watched Black man, blood,

brother, on his stomach,

say please, say I can’t breathe


the white knee disguised as blue

on his neck, cop’s hands in his

pockets as if relaxed, as if all is well,

as if that’s not a man 

trapped on the ground

for eight minutes and forty-six seconds.

I realized this cop would not

have done this to a dog.

His exception so natural,

it didn’t occur to him to let up

when Floyd begged for air,

his polite desperation ignored

by three cops who stood around 

as if watching a movie, 

without the popcorn.

It is broad daylight.

People are witnessing and recording, 

when Floyd screams

and his dead mama comes

to pick him up,

as God releases him from his body

so she, 

can take him home. 

           --Mary E. Weems, Ph.D.

“It's a whole lot more personal to me, having a young black son,” Darelle Hill said. “He'll be two on June 19, coincidentally. He's a little too young to understand exactly what's going on. But, just the thought of having to explain to him and also my 10-year-old daughter exactly what is going on. Hopefully, by the time they get a little older, especially my son, I won't have to go through this and have to explain another situation later on down the line.”

Tony Sias directs his cast during a video shoot for "Freedom on Juneteenth" [Kayla Lupean]

Over the past century, Karamu House has known its share of challenging times. A little over four years ago, Tony Sias took over leadership of an organization on the brink of economic collapse. Since then, he has stabilized finances, started a renovation program and helped inject new life into the historic theater - only to watch a pandemic grind all that progress to a halt.

“You know what? I come from a resilient people,” Sias said. “And this is a resilient organization. I am still standing. We are still breathing. We are still existing. And there is work to be done."

"Freedom on Juneteenth"streams online Friday at 7 p.m. on Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Roku and Fire TV.

david.barnett@ideastream.org | 216-916-6242