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'Greenwood' At Matthews Playhouse Elevates Voices From The Tulsa Race Massacre

Alexandra Corbett
Matthews Playhouse
Will McCray as Sir and Diatra T. Langford as Lucile in "Greenwood."

A new play premieres at Matthews Playhouse this weekend. "Greenwood" takes audiences back to 1921 and places them in the wealthy, historically Black Greenwood neighborhood, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, then casually known as "Black Wall Street," just as the Tulsa race massacre is unfolding around them.

The two-act play opened Friday, and audiences have two more chances to see the show on Saturday before it closes.

The play features an all-Black cast, and it's the first time the work has been fully staged with lights, sets and period costumes. It was the winning submission from the 2021 African American Playwrights Group Festival.

WFAE's Nick de la Canal spoke with the playwright, Coolidge Harris II of California, ahead of the show's opening on Friday. They discussed the history behind the show and Harris' hopes for his new work.

Nick de la Canal: To start out, I want to acknowledge that this is not a well-known story. I wonder if you could remind us in a little more detail what sparked these deadly riots in 1921 and how these events unfolded.

Coolidge Harris II: Yeah, so it started with a confrontation between Dick Rowland, the Black shoeshine boy, and Sarah Page in an elevator where he was accused of molesting her. He later ran home. He was apprehended, and the local newspaper created an uproar, writing huge headlines that a Black boy had molested a white girl and that brought out a huge angry mob set on vengeance.

De la Canal: And I understand there was a confrontation between this angry white mob and a group of Black residents who were trying to protect Roland from getting lynched. That confrontation turned deadly with 12 people killed — 10 of them white and two of them Black. And then the next day, I understand the violence just exploded, with scores of angry white mobs who essentially demolished large sections of the neighborhood and killed quite a number of people.

Harris: They did. There was — the number has always been kind of mitigated, but there's an estimated 300 deaths.

De la Canal: Why was this a story that you wanted to dramatize?

Harris: Well, we're into the 100-year commemoration of the event. It's one that I think needed to be told. It was never mentioned — rarely mentioned through media coverage, and I felt that it was a story that actually needed to be told.

De la Canal: I understand you wrote this during the pandemic. Is that right?

Harris: Yeah. Yeah, that's true.

De la Canal: And you centered the play around a husband and wife couple who run a boarding house in the Greenwood neighborhood, and part of the show is centered around their relationship. And there are other characters — people in the boarding house or in the neighborhood. There's a visitor. Why did you want to center this show around these everyday people and their own personal lives?

Harris: I wanted to humanize it. The purpose for me writing this story is to not have those voices lost but to have those voices speak from the grave. And I wanted to humanize it in a way that when an audience is watching the performances, they see real people who could have been there at that time, as they're watching it play in front of them.

Alexandra Corbett
Matthews Playhouse
From left: Cameron Drayton as Red Manning, Diatra T. Langford as Lucile, Elizabeth Spivey as Shawnese, Will McCray as Sir and Brandon L. Gaston as Tucker in "Greenwood."
The purpose for me writing this story is to not have those voices lost, but to have those voices speak from the grave.
Coolidge Harris II, on writing "Greenwood"

De la Canal: Are there any lessons that you would like the audience to take away from this show?

Harris: Yeah. I wanted to capture the vestiges of this dying memory of what once was: a productive, prosperous African American environment. And I just wanted the world to know that this group of people who did things the right way were robbed of generational wealth. They have not to this day received any restitution or reparation, and I just felt deeply that that was something the world should know about — that those voices won't be lost; their memory won't be lost.

De la Canal: How do you think you'll be feeling once an audience gets to see this for the first time?

Harris: You know, to think that I started writing this play a little over a year ago, that it is already in front of an audience is just a blessing in itself, and I think that that's working from a force greater than me. And so, yeah, it would be a very moving moment for me.

De la Canal: Coolidge Harris, thank you so much for joining us.

Harris: Thank you. Thank you, Nick.

Information about how to see "Greenwood" can be found at matthewsplayhouse.com.

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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