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A note from the playwright, Kristiana Rae Colón

 

You can’t worship walls and be free.

 

In fall 2015, Chicago hosted the International Assembly of Chiefs of Police at McCormick Place. It was a conference where police from across the globe gather to exchange best practices on how to surveil, harass, and oppress working class people, and the young Black activists of my great city said “not today.” It was a year after Mike Brown’s murder and the uprising in Ferguson, and by this time I had attended, organized and lead many protest marches, shut down plenty traffic, and been shoved into riot shields; but on this day, I was a driver, strategically blocking an intersection to unload a car full of warriors who would lock themselves together and shut down traffic in front of the entrance to this gathering of top cops. A coalition of organizations locked down all around McCormick Place simultaneously, and for that day at least, it was not business as usual. The demand: stop the cops and fund Black futures. But moments after we locked down, the ire we received was not from the police, who dispassionately radioed the SWAT unit to cut folks out of their lockboxes. No, the rage was from drivers who were stalled for a few minutes before the traffic cops could assemble a diversion. Men hopped out of their cars, shoved young women protesters, threatened to run us over. It was a common trope at protests, the disgruntled and inconvenienced, but on this day, it was particularly putrid. The momentarily-stalled drivers were not enraged at the glut of money the city was spending to swap tactics on how to more effectively mete out violence with impunity; they were enraged that young Black folks in the street, singing and chanting for freedom, were making them late.

 

Maybe that’s why a few weeks later, watching the closing sequence of the CNN documentary Blackfish, a warm buzz washed over my body and I knew I had a play demanding to be written. At the end of this harrowing film exposing the conditions of whales in captivity at marine theme parks, there were montages of white suburbanites, enraged, marching with protest signs in shape of a whale tail. Perhaps they chanted “FREE TILIKUM.” Maybe some were brave enough to slow down traffic. But something had captured the white imagination enough to evoke empathy for this confined whale, enough to galvanize them to protest. So I thought: cool, bet. White people love whales. Even if they Black. I got some things up my sleeve.

 

Spoiler alert: this is an abolitionist play. That means it is in my canon of work that asks you to imagine a world without prisons and police. Another spoiler: slavery was never abolished. The 13th amendment made forced bondage illegal except as punishment for a crime, in a nation that has waged a centuries-long campaign to villainize and criminalize Black and brown people. Spoiler: that means every day you have drawn breath in America, slavery has been legal, in the form of prisons. Spoiler: The work of abolition was not complete in 1865. If captivity, violence, and punishment are the only ways we can conceive to navigate harm and conflict, our imaginations have failed us.

 

Close your eyes. Imagine the sound of the ocean. Imagine a world without cages. Imagine a world without borders. You can’t worship walls and be free. And you can’t taste the salt of freedom, design a more liberated future, if you can’t first imagine what freedom tastes like, envision a liberation that doesn’t depend on a class of humans in captivity. What are the borders of your empathy? What was your name before walls?

 

Tilikum plays June 22-July 29 at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens.

 

Photos by Kristiana Rae Colón

A note from the playwright, Kristiana Rae Colón

 

You can’t worship walls and be free.

 

In fall 2015, Chicago hosted the International Assembly of Chiefs of Police at McCormick Place. It was a conference where police from across the globe gather to exchange best practices on how to surveil, harass, and oppress working class people, and the young Black activists of my great city said “not today.” It was a year after Mike Brown’s murder and the uprising in Ferguson, and by this time I had attended, organized and lead many protest marches, shut down plenty traffic, and been shoved into riot shields; but on this day, I was a driver, strategically blocking an intersection to unload a car full of warriors who would lock themselves together and shut down traffic in front of the entrance to this gathering of top cops. A coalition of organizations locked down all around McCormick Place simultaneously, and for that day at least, it was not business as usual. The demand: stop the cops and fund Black futures. But moments after we locked down, the ire we received was not from the police, who dispassionately radioed the SWAT unit to cut folks out of their lockboxes. No, the rage was from drivers who were stalled for a few minutes before the traffic cops could assemble a diversion. Men hopped out of their cars, shoved young women protesters, threatened to run us over. It was a common trope at protests, the disgruntled and inconvenienced, but on this day, it was particularly putrid. The momentarily-stalled drivers were not enraged at the glut of money the city was spending to swap tactics on how to more effectively mete out violence with impunity; they were enraged that young Black folks in the street, singing and chanting for freedom, were making them late.

 

Maybe that’s why a few weeks later, watching the closing sequence of the CNN documentary Blackfish, a warm buzz washed over my body and I knew I had a play demanding to be written. At the end of this harrowing film exposing the conditions of whales in captivity at marine theme parks, there were montages of white suburbanites, enraged, marching with protest signs in shape of a whale tail. Perhaps they chanted “FREE TILIKUM.” Maybe some were brave enough to slow down traffic. But something had captured the white imagination enough to evoke empathy for this confined whale, enough to galvanize them to protest. So I thought: cool, bet. White people love whales. Even if they Black. I got some things up my sleeve.

 

Spoiler alert: this is an abolitionist play. That means it is in my canon of work that asks you to imagine a world without prisons and police. Another spoiler: slavery was never abolished. The 13th amendment made forced bondage illegal except as punishment for a crime, in a nation that has waged a centuries-long campaign to villainize and criminalize Black and brown people. Spoiler: that means every day you have drawn breath in America, slavery has been legal, in the form of prisons. Spoiler: The work of abolition was not complete in 1865. If captivity, violence, and punishment are the only ways we can conceive to navigate harm and conflict, our imaginations have failed us.

 

Close your eyes. Imagine the sound of the ocean. Imagine a world without cages. Imagine a world without borders. You can’t worship walls and be free. And you can’t taste the salt of freedom, design a more liberated future, if you can’t first imagine what freedom tastes like, envision a liberation that doesn’t depend on a class of humans in captivity. What are the borders of your empathy? What was your name before walls?

 

Tilikum plays June 22-July 29 at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens.