Project X, an experimental theater company in Dallas, Texas, is putting the Tulsa Race Riot on stage this weekend with Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. The play is one of 17 written by Erik Ehn for a series titled “Soulographie: Our Genocides,” a project he’s been working on for 15 years, which will culminate in a festival at New York’s LaMaMa Experimental Theater November 10-18.
Ehn’s plays tell the stories of 20th century atrocities in Tulsa, Rwanda, and Central America, each locale with its own three- or four-play series. Tulsa’s plays, Diamond Dick, Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, and Shape, deal with the riot; its aftermath, told from a survivor’s perspective; and genocidal ideology, respectively. Other plays, like Every Man Jack of You, the series’ overture; Drunk Still Drinking; Burnt Umber; and Star, provide a bridge between all of the localities.
Ehn, whose mother lives in Tulsa, told Mark Lowry at Theater Jones that he was visiting his mother when he saw a blurb in the local newspaper about the decision not to unearth a suspected mass grave containing riot victims. “It was buried in the paper in the same way sports scores or gardening tips would be buried, as if it was kind of normal,” Ehn said. “I started asking around about it, and the story of the Tulsa Race Riot came out. I had heard nothing about it, despite longtime Oklahoma connections. If you scratch the surface you see that there’s so much there, so it needed a play.”
He said Diamond Dick is “a play for victims and survivors of the massacre in the Tulsa race riots.”
“It’s [not] an attempt to write their play—I’m outside that experience—but an attempt to be with the events.”
Ehn asked 17 directors in the U.S. and abroad to choose a play to produce, first locally and then at the Soulographie festival. Project X’s co-founder, Raphael Parry, chose Diamond Dick because he liked the writing and the setting’s proximity to Dallas.
“At the time, I didn’t think it was a historic event; I thought it was something he created,” Parry said. “I thought it was fantasia because it was so poetic. Initially, I was drawn to the story because it’s so different than anything I knew. But I did some research on the Internet and found out it was true, so I had to do it. I’ve lived in Dallas for 30 years and didn’t know anything about it.”
The play, which opened last weekend, is poetic; the narration and dialogue—and there’s significantly more narration than dialogue—sounds more like poetry being read aloud than it does the lines of a play. The actors also rely on interpretive movement; dance, a combination of street movement and African dance, choreographed by Karen Bower Robinson; and song, inspired by negro gospel music of the South, composed by Newton Pittman, to tell the story. Parry also incorporated film—both original and archival—and shadow work into the play.
“Erik gave us license to do whatever we want,” Parry said. “ We probably created more music for the play than is actually intended, but that is purposeful because I feel like melody helps an audience follow along and helps a story move forward. It’s a little bit like opera: When the emotion gets to be too much, we sing a song.”
It is a moving, highly emotional play. It’s at times hard to follow, even for someone who knows the history well, because of its non-linear format and because the actors play multiple characters. Still, even without understanding every line, you get the overall purpose and emotion of the play.
The text is drawn largely from Scott Ellsworth’s book Death in a Promised Land, as well as other historic documents and the documentary Before They Die!. Much of the play’s language is composed of actual quotes.
Parry said the Tulsa Race Riot qualifies as genocide because of the intention behind it. He said Ehn and others often call it the Tulsa Massacre, rather than the Tulsa Race Riot, because “it was an action of whites attacking blacks without provocation with the intent of wiping them out and murdering them.”
“Genocide is defined as a human-against-human activity where the intention is to wipe them out completely,” Parry said. “The intention (of the race riot) was to get rid of the black community. It was organized. It may have started as frenetic mob, but it began to organize itself and had political policy behind it, with the National Guard coming in and some of them participating in the massacre. Law enforcement was involved, and it was a sanctioned event. Whether or not it was formally sanctioned, it was sanctioned by the people who kept the law in that community.”
Diamond Dick continues its run this weekend. Click here to read The Dallas Morning News’ review.
—Holly Wall, News Editor