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Social Justice Takes Center Stage In Three Bone Theatre's 'HANDS UP'

Omar El-Amin in Three Bone Theatre's production of The New Black Fest's HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments.
Nick de la Canal
Omar El-Amin in Three Bone Theatre's production of The New Black Fest's HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments.

A new play opens this week in Charlotte — one dealing with themes of social justice, trauma, and the Black experience.

The work is titled "HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments." It was originally commissioned in 2015 by The New Black Fest in Brooklyn, New York. It's comprised of seven monologues written by seven Black playwrights in response the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio, among others.

The production from Three Bone Theatre will feature an all-Black cast working under the direction of Quentin Talley, with each actor performing one 10-minute monologue.

This will be the first time the work has been staged in Charlotte. It will also be the first production to be mounted by Three Bone Theatre since March, when live entertainment was brought to a halt due to the coronavirus outbreak.

There will be no in-person audience for this production, in consideration of present health guidelines. Instead, the show will be livestreamed from the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square nightly from Thursday, Nov. 19 - Nov. 21 — and the stream will be live. The actors are not taping their performances, and there will be no recording for people to watch later.

In advance of the show's opening, WFAE's Nick de la Canal spoke with Three Bone's executive director, Becky Shultz, and cast member Omar El-Amin.

Laurence Mayor in Three Bone Theatre's production of "The New Black Fest's HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments."
Nick de la Canal
Laurence Maher in Three Bone Theatre's production of "The New Black Fest's HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments."

Nick de la Canal: Becky, I'd like to start with you. This is going to be Three Bone's first performance since March. Why was this piece chosen?

Becky Shultz: In light of both COVID as well as the focus on racial injustice in our community, we sort of went back to the drawing board on our plans for this season, and this piece, in particular, jumped out because not only is it incredibly timely and relevant in our community as we deal with the plight of injustice and police abuse and the impact on the Black community, it also is an incredibly COVID friendly show.

It's a collection of monologues, so we don't need to have our actors in a room rehearsing with one another. Most rehearsals are able to be done over Zoom until we could get into the theater and properly spread out. So it really aligns itself well to ensuring that we're keeping our artists safe as we go through this process.

De la Canal: Omar, your monologue, I believe, is the last one in the show. Is that right?

Omar El-Amin: It is.

De la Canal: And it's titled "How I Feel." It's written by Dennis Allen. And it begins with the character watching some news coverage of the Ferguson protests back in 2015, and his girlfriend asks if they should discuss what to do if the police stop and harass them. I wonder if you've ever had similar conversations with someone in your life, and how close you feel personally with this role?

El-Amin: Well, yeah I would say the role — I feel very personal with it. I've never really been harassed by police, per se. I have been stopped and I mean — my experience was not harassment, but it still rang very clear that I was probably being profiled to some degree.

And I've spoken with my significant other about it. She's very understanding. I would tell her to just be quiet if we were together, or if she was not with me, then I would really be shaken up.

De la Canal: And I understand your monologue is supposed to have a call and response element to it. I think there are a few times where you say "hands up," and the audience is supposed to respond with "don't shoot." How is that going to work with no live audience?

El-Amin: Well, there will be the other characters that are in the play. They will be sitting spread out in what will look like an audience, to give you the feel of an audience, and they will respond to me. So we will do some call and response.

Jay Ward in Three Bone Theatre's production of "The New Black Fest's HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments."
Nick de la Canal
Jay Ward in Three Bone Theatre's production of "The New Black Fest's HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments."

De la Canal: I'd like to ask each of you if there's any one line or part in the show that's going to stick with you long after the lights go dark and after the show closes. Omar, I'll ask you that first.

El-Amin: Okay. The line though — I will say it's not from my monologue. It's from one of the other monologues — abortion. And it's the line where he's talking to a child. He says, "Well Dad, am I a good idea?" He's talking about ideas and the birth of kids and all that good stuff. And he's like, "Well, kids are born from ideas."

And I really like and embrace that concept, because I have children. And they are good ideas. So, I mean, it's one idea from one parent. One idea from another parent. And those parents come together and they make another idea together. You got some good ideas? I got good ideas. It's so sweet. I like it.

So that line or that monologue, and that essence — that's going to stick with me forever.

De la Canal: Becky, same question to you.

Shultz: Yeah. You know, if I think about a specific line, it's probably one from Omar's that is talking — because it really is closing out the show in this idea of, "my life is valuable" — is the line, "I have inherent value that shouldn't have to be proven or justified." And I think that's so universal in terms of, if people could agree that the one rule for everyone is that we all have value and act and treat people that way, it would be a fundamentally different world that we're in.

I would also say — different from a specific line — but one of the things I love about this show is that these seven monologues are all completely different. It's so often in theater that we get a single story that's supposed to be a monolith. It's supposed to represent the full experience. So what I love about this show is it's seven very different, but very honest and real experiences.

De la Canal: Becky Shultz, she's the executive director of Three Bone Theatre, and Omar El-Amin, an actor in the cast of the upcoming production of "Hands Up." Thanks to you both.

Shultz: Thank you!

El-Amin: Thank you, sir.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal