In the opening monologue for “Don’t Call it a Riot!,” the audience is introduced to a member of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, Sam, who is portrayed by Mic Montgomery. The year is 1968. Montgomery’s deep and impassioned voice commands attention and signals the importance of his words: “Let us remember it’s the power of our minds that they fear.” He later raises a fist high in the air.
In the next scene, Sam’s pregnant wife Reed (Meysha Harville) and her best friend Marti (Lillian Afful-Straton) join him on stage. Both are members of the party, but Marti isn’t as entrenched in the cause. Marti moves in with the couple after getting kicked out of her house because she was caught shoplifting. Though contemporaries, Reed is studying to become a lawyer and is laser-focused on fighting against injustice, while Marti is more of a lost soul. Throughout Act 1, intense scenes are balanced with lighthearted moments, such as Marti and Reed dancing to James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” The fictional characters are not immune to the real life organized effort by law enforcement to disrupt and dismantle the party.
“Don’t Call it a Riot!” is a two-act play written and directed by Amontaine Aurore. Audiences won’t see dozens of people marching across the stage holding protest signs with succinct, catchy phrases written on them during the play. “Riot” focuses on what’s happening in the characters’ lives when they’re not stating their demands into a megaphone. She was inspired to write the story after watching a video of Bobby Seale, cofounder of the Black Panther Party. He was in prison at the time and was asked what meal he was looking forward to eating upon his release. Aurore said he described a Rice-A-Roni-based dish in great detail.
“We put them on pedestals, and we don’t recognize that they also are people that like to eat, they have children, they get sick,” Aurore said. “They have the same wants and needs as all of us, but they have decided to give themselves to this thing that is much bigger than they are. Something that they’re willing to die for.”
Aurore went on to say she wanted to present activism in a light where people can be more cognizant of the demands of the role.
Act 2 picks up 31 years later. The first scene begins with Falala (Skylar Wilkerson), Marti’s 20-year-old daughter, and her boyfriend Paris (Robert Lovett). Falala is a food-justice activist who rails against Monsanto and Walmart. The couple plan on participating in the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests. They disagree on the “right” way to bring about change. Falala hasn’t ruled out destroying property if necessary, but Paris is strongly against a protest that isn’t peaceful. Falala asserts to Paris that she’s a “grown-ass woman” and “we’re talking about the destruction of our ecosystem.” Falala invites Reed, who now lives in Los Angeles, to give a speech as part of her protest. Reed’s and Marti’s lives have drastically changed. When the two reunite, a betrayal from decades ago is revealed.
“Don’t Call it a Riot!” infuses drama into a history lesson. Early on in the play Sam and Reed discuss the arrest of Aaron Dixon, real-life captain of Seattle’s Black Panther Party. Police accused him of stealing a typewriter and charged him with larceny. In a 2013 interview with Real Change, Dixon described how the rally formed to protest his arrest turned into a rebellion. Tensions were high throughout the summer and later a jury found Dixon not guilty.
The WTO protests in 1999 were marked by tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to speak out against an array of topics, including WTO policies and human rights. Protests lasted several days and culminated with the conference ending early, millions of dollars’ worth of property damage and civil rights violation lawsuits.
As part of her research, Aurore talked with Dixon and Norm Stamper, Seattle Police Department chief during the WTO protests. The eras Aurore writes about are parallel to current events.
“It’s very cyclical, and we’re seeing so much activism arising again with Black Lives Matter and the Parkland teens and, you know, Occupy Wall Street and all these different movements. It’s just all coming back,” Aurore said. “When you look at the issues, they’re the same. They haven’t changed. We still need access to education. We still need access to affordable housing. We still need police reform. We’re still dealing with discrimination in employment and housing. We’re still dealing with police abuse.”
Aurore would like to see a generational coming together and a conversation about what can be done to affect longlasting sustainable change.
The writer and performer grew up in Burien and is the youngest of four. When her family moved to the south King County community in the early ’60s, it was rural and they were one of the first Black families. Aurore said the neighbors created a petition to try to force them out, they were called names, and when her sisters walked home from school, guys would flick hot cigarette ashes on their arms.
“I feel like I came into a world that was really in flux, and my parents were very conscious and very aware and very political, so I was always exposed to all of that,” Aurore said. “I was super, super, super aware of racial tensions.”
Amid racial discord and a shifting cultural landscape, Aurore’s parents cultivated and encouraged her love for the arts. Her father was an engineer and an opera singer. As a toddler she’d listen to him sing and try to mimic the songs. Later she joined Black Arts/West theater company and other local performing arts groups. She then moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career there but was disappointed in the kinds of roles she was offered.
“I never wanted to do stereotypes,” Aurore said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a maid but I didn’t want to be a maid or a slave or a prostitute. Those were the kinds of roles that I have watched as a child in the movies that I felt really hurt me.”
Aurore took matters into her own hands. She went back to school and received a degree in writing from Antioch University. After writing across several different mediums, she returned to performance art with one-woman shows.
“Don’t Call it a Riot!” is the first ensemble piece Aurore has written, and it was a finalist in the 2017 Bay Area Playwright’s Festival. Aurore is looking forward to the show opening on May 11.
The actors in the play are fully immersed in their roles. It’s evident they’ve developed a trust and ease with one another to effortlessly portray their characters. It’s not only a testament to their commitment to their craft but also to Aurore’s storytelling. Because the characters are relatable, it’s easy to become invested in the lives of Sam, Reed, Marti, Falala and Paris. The play offers an opportunity to reflect on the past and envision a better future.
WHAT: “Don’t Call it a Riot!”
WHEN: Thurs. – Sun. May 10 – 13 & 17 – 20, buy tickets
WHERE: 18th & Union Theater, 1406 18th Avenue, Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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