This blog post was written by Girls Write Now mentee Laila Stevens after attending the Social Justice Cafe of the Manhattan theater Dixon Place. The October event featured Connie Winston’s American Captives: Lena Baker & Sandra Bland with a panel style discussion afterwards.
Staff member Kyndal Thomas (middle) with mentees Laila Stevens (left) and Ria Parker (right) were treated to front row seats for the final showing then asked to join Connie Winston and her director Rhonda Passion Hansome to share their reactions to the play with audience members.
Down the narrow stairs of the trendy lounge at Dixon Place was a stage waiting to showcase built up emotions. For many, the world premiere of Connie Winston’s American Captives: Lena Baker & Sandra Bland was cathartic. For me, it was an opportunity for reflection on the stories of two Black Women and the criminal justice system, a relationship often left in the shadows. It was the first time I heard the name Lena Baker. A partial shame washed over me. I had been engaging in social justice movements and was uninformed of a significant story. But then, after hearing both narratives, I realized the stories were the same, but the people were different. Lena Baker was sentenced to death by an all white, all male jury for killing her abusive lover, and Sandra Bland was arrested and found dead in her cell for failing to signal a turn—both victims of the U.S. criminal justice system.
The show started with a lone casket draped with an American flag. Arriving at our seats early, allotted time for me to comprehend the lingering metaphor. Systematic oppression is glazed over with patriotism, without recognition of consistent lives lost. Throughout the play, the connection was made clear between not only Lena Baker and Sandra Bland, but the substantial amount of Black People killed by the United States justice system.
The use of multimedia production with colored lights and a large screen, displayed the story with emotion-evoking visuals. As Connie spoke about both Sandra and Lena’s big brown eyes and wide smiles, a picture of Sandra appeared on the screen. She compared Sandra to the first love of her life, a college roommate to whom she’d never speak again. I was left in awe by the way she could compare two admirable faces, one of which she’d never even met. The dozens of names spoken aloud matched with the faces of those killed by the police on the screen and created a visual web. I thought about #sayhername and how important it is that we speak people’s presence into the atmosphere. Grief shadowed over me with thought of the lives once lived, and the friends and family who loved them.
Toward the end, Connie Winston left the audience in tears with her own captivating performance. The show was an individual ode to two women she felt she knew, but personally didn’t know at all. Unexpectedly, Community Outreach Coordinator Kyndal, mentee Ria, and I were invited on stage to speak about the Girls Write Now organization.
Rhonda asks Laila to share out about her experience as a Black Woman writer and photographer
(Left to right: Actress Connie Winston, Director Rhonda Passion Hansome, Girls Write Now Staff Member Kyndal, mentees Laila and Ria)
We spoke about our mission as an organization and what we do as individuals to evoke change. Serving as an example was nerve wracking at first, especially as one of the youngest people in the room. As I took a deep breath and heard the personal stories of audience members, I knew that despite our differences we all cared about one issue. I was spiritually moved by the performance, the people I met, and the experience as a whole.
Dixon Place provided a beautiful space for black women creatives to connect and reflect