Rarely is one ever forced to emerge from the darkness of ignorance and face someone else’s harsh reality: one filled with gunshots, tragedy and grief. “Witness,” the first of the “Dark Girl Chronicles,” written and directed by Nia O. Withersoon, forces one to enter the reality of Diamond Reynolds, a black woman whose boyfriend was wrongfully killed by a policeman. Withersoon does this by bringing the audience on stage with the performers, who constantly circle the audience members due to the in-the-round set up.
The piece tells the story of black women in America both through an African story of creation and the tragedy faced by Reynolds on July 6, 2016. While she, her boyfriend Philando Castile and her daughter Iyanla were driving, they got pulled over. When Castile reached for his license and registration, he was shot seven times by the officer who pulled him over. Diamond and Iyanla, who was only four years old at the time, witnessed his death. While it is mainly black men killed in these senseless acts of violence, countless black women have to then endure pain and suffering, and their stories are seldom heard.
Withersoon makes you listen. She literally surrounds and pulls the audience members into the story of Diamond, and has you witness her emotional torment. She has the cast look audience members straight in the eye as they repeat the pleas for help that Diamond spoke, word for word. However, this does not happen until the very end of the piece. Withersoon first tells a tale of creation, where three powerful beings, Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding are trying to find a home.
The performance started with the lights turned down low, leaving an eerie purple glow, illuminating the figures on stage. The women tell the story of creation with chants, song, echos, narration, conversation and movement. All these elements come together to demonstrate how Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding work together to create human consciousness and a connection to reality.
Then comes the “pop, pop, pop,” the sound of bullets being fired into Castile. The lights go up, and all the cast members fluidly and simultaneously represent, Diamond, Iyanla, the police officer and Castile. This was one of the most impactful moments of the performance for many, including senior Leiya Salis.
“The part that was most impactful for me was when all the actresses were around the ladder and they were embodying all the different people in the story and the roles weren’t really defined; they were one thing but also different things at the same time. I thought that was really powerful,” Salis said.
They cry for help and lament together. Then they disperse, look every member of the audience straight in the eyes, and ask them to do something.
Because of conventions of theater, the audience is not supposed to interrupt the performance, so everyone stays silent in their seats even if they feel an urge to jump up and help these distraught women. It draws a parallel to the real world where people may witness something and want to help but feel held back by the conventions of the situation.
While shorter than the begging of the piece, this is the segment that hits the audience like a ton of bricks, and left the audience in Brehmer Theater paralyzed in their seats on September 7.
“I felt shocked in that I was hit with a bunch of realizations about all the lives being lead that face tragedies like this. A lot of it was stuff that was bigger than me, and I felt a bit uncomfortable,” first-year Larsen Klein said.
Although the piece left the audience with a lot to process and unpack, the cast ended the performance on a high note. After they took their bows and the audience clapped and cheered, upbeat music filled the room and the cast encouraged the audience to physically shake everything out with them.
Contact Abigail Blair at [email protected]