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Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and Shakespeare "Outcry" makes lively art from painful American history

By ELIZA BENT

Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond

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Last year, Thais Francis was scheduled to performer a dance/monologue piece about Troy Davis, who was executed after a lengthy and contested trial. Two weeks later, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed.

"When I heard about Trayvon, I wasn't enraged, just stunned," Francis recalls. "We keep screaming for this to stop. So by writing a play I wasn't trying to solve anything, but just explore these questions that don't have answers."

Questions like:  Why do innocent men keep getting killed? How is race a factor? And what have all the tweets about hoodies and the marches and the vigils actually accomplished?

Outcry, which plays at JACK in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood through February 17, is Francis' attempt to navigate these issues. It's a dreamscape play that intertwines the lives of Martin, Emmett Till, and several other men and women who have been notoriously affected by race-related violence in America.

"I wouldn't say I'm a playwright, but I am a woman who had something to say, so I wrote a play," says Francis, a recent NYU graduate.

During spring break of her senior year, she stayed at home putting pen to paper. "The words just came out---I felt like these characters were speaking to me. And I'm not, like, a hippie or anything."

Since then, the play has gone through a number of iterations, including a sold-out run at Horse Trade Theatre last September. Francis has continued to hone the voice she's creating for each character. Trayvon Martin, for instance, struck her as a regular young guy, "so I put his text into the vernacular of people I know." For the voice of Emmett Till, she researched slang from the 1950s. "We see Trayvon and Emmett, and then we also see the life of Mamie Till and how she interacts with Trayvon," Francis explains. "It's a metaphysical dream state where people morph in and out of the world of the play."

She stresses that the play isn't particularly morose. "I think people automatically assume that because of the content, it's depressing," she says. "But I'm not heavy. I'm politically and socially aware, but there are colors within that. There's a lot of laughing and joking and dancing in <i>Outcry</i>."

For example, Shakespeare is prominently featured throughout the show. Francis notes, "Trayvon recites Shakespeare at the start of the play saying, 'Shakespeare is my nigga.' But Emmett Till is confused and says, 'Did you just call Shakespeare a 'nigger'?'"

In other words, humor and liveliness arise when modern and historical moments rub against each other in surprising ways.

Outcry also features a fair amount of dance, mostly in a South African style. For Francis, this underlines the show's sense of history and culture. "It's about the strength of black people," she says. "We may have been given 40 acres and a mule, and then that may have been taken away, but we will still resound because we are a resounding people."

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Eliza Bent is a playwright, performer, and journalist living in Brooklyn
Photo by Jamie Larson
Photo features performers from the Horse Trade production