In The Breath Project, actors respond to the murder of George Floyd
Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time – enough to destroy a life. The murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, in May sent a wave of protests across the United States. It has also inspired a powerful response in the American theater.
Two theater professionals issued a call for small actors and groups across the country to create monologues and performances just eight minutes, 46 seconds long – the time Mr. Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. Gamal Abdel Chasten, the founder of the Universes Theater Ensemble in New York, and Marieke Gaboury, a theater expert who works for the city of Palo Alto, call the effort The Breath Project refer to the last words at Floyd: “I can’t breathe. .” In three months they have received recordings of nearly 100 original works from actors and directors who identify as BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color), all now archived online for the public to see.
There is an intimacy to actors speaking directly to the viewer, sharing traumatic experiences and expressing fear. In “Waiting for Death” James Brunt, an actor from Denver, appeared bleeding from a pond before he said: “It’s easy to kill black boys in this country. I would like to know when I am going to leave.” In a piece titled “Just Breathe” (pictured above), actors from St. Paul’s Ananya Dance Theater write in a transparent box that slowly fills with smoke. An actor from Flint, Michigan, who is passing through Harvey, performs “Breonna’s Prayer”, putting cream on her face before bed as Breonna Taylor, the Kentucky woman who was shot to death in home with the police. In a voiceover, a woman sings: “Now I’m laying down to sleep / I’m asking the Lord to keep my soul / Because I’ll die before I wake up .”
There are rhymes and spoken word, song and dance and work with many voices; there are mothers who mourn, husbands who express their fear of sudden death, a fictional cop who admits “for the first time I am ashamed. ” Police violence against African Americans is not the only issue. Climate change, gender and the coronavirus pandemic are also part of this picture. The project focuses on “this challenging and turbulent time in American history,” Mr. Chasten says. Over time, the archive is expected to function as a living time capsule.
It has another big goal: by collaborating with two dozen regional theaters, all of which support these actors, The Breath Project hopes for a more equitable and inclusive American theater to raise Opportunities for people of color on and off stage remain limited in the United States. A 2017 study by Actors Equity, the industry union, showed that African Americans make up only about ten percent of leading roles on Broadway, and slightly more off-Broadway (according to the 2010 census, African Americans African make up 25% of New York City’s population). Salaries are generally lower, and offstage, the picture is even worse. According to the newly formed Black Theater Coalition, out of more than 11,000 shows since Broadway opened in 1866, only 38 directors, stage managers and choreographers have been black.
The Breath Project is one of several organizations that are now working to address this imbalance. Its partner theaters from Cincinnati to New Orleans to Hawaii have pledged to stage some of these pieces when live theater resumes, while the online archive could be a a resource for artistic directors who want to cast BIPOC actors in their productions.
“We have to use this level, if we really want to diversify” theater companies and audiences, Mr. Chasten says. Out of crisis, change can come. Although it is prevented from to perform live, fans are creating new ways to stage. In “Transcending Isolation”, the Palo Alto youth group and the Stanford University Collective Forum, a research and data institute, collect the voices of teenagers from around the world, communicating their loneliness over text and social media. “I want to believe we’ll figure it out,” one says. It’s hope that The Breath Project sharing.
The Breath Project can be found at www.thebreathproject2020.com