On the first day of The Alliance Theatre’s Summer 2018 Palefsky Collision Project, I was afraid that I wasn’t talented enough to be a part of a group of such incredible performers. Each summer, a diverse group of 20 metro-area teens gathers to “unpack a classic text under the guidance of a professional playwright and director.” The first thing we did once everyone arrived was make a circle in one of the rehearsal spaces downstairs of the Woodruff Arts Center. We were channeling an energy that we didn’t fully know about yet. In our blood was the unfiltered, raw, undistilled force for change.
The collision process starts with a piece of art to draw themes and ideas from. Then after we’ve analyzed the text through group conversation, we put the themes in our body, voice, and imagination, creating new and organic pieces of theatre, stemming from the original piece of art. After each day, we do a writing prompt to culminate our feeling and ideas. An example would be “What does it mean to be a leader? Do you know any? Do you consider yourself to be a leader?” We turn in our responses on paper, and from those, the amazing Alliance Theatre resident playwright Pearl Cleage, quilts together our responses, and creates a script that represents us. We also write songs and music to go into the show , really making it a unique and collaborative experience.
It was dug into us very early on in the process that the purpose of the Collision Project was for us to come out the other side trained to save the world. Through the collision process, I realized how brilliant each and every person I was working with were in their own right. We had singers, dancers, writers, poets, actors, instrumentalists — any talent you could think of, someone had it in our group of people. And through the process, I found my voice.
Describing it is difficult, but I feel it every time I’m on stage with these people. It’s an element of trust that you don’t get from anywhere else. My voice feels like fire. Being on stage with these people demands that I use every ounce, every single essence of my energy, of my flame, for this piece of art. Holding back would be an insult. I can feel the fire, small and concentrated at first, but with our collective breath, with the breath of 20 other artists, inhaling and exhaling together, in unison, on the same plane of existence, I could grow my fire until it took over my body. I wrote my first song in the hands of these people, and I cried on stage for the first time in the hands of these people. And when the process was finally over, we finished in a circle. But when our hands disconnected for the last time, the fire didn’t change in intensity, and the rays of light it produced didn’t pierce my heart any differently than they did when our hands were together. I’m a Collisioner, and I always will be.
Fast forward to January 2019, a week before MLK Day. We were going to reincarnate our collision from the summer and fuse together MLK elements. We started with a circle. We watched the movie “Selma” as our piece to derive writing prompts from and began the collision process. We submerged ourselves in the Civil Rights Movement and adapted to the frequency of MLK speeches and the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Listening to the “Selma” soundtrack, I could feel my body responding to its influence, and I wanted to move, sway, march head-on, march to forward.
Feeling the collision project in the air again, I was ready to move. I rewrote one of my songs that I performed in the summer to better fit the Civil Rights Movement. In the summer, I wrote a song titled “Drunken Man,” illuminating the struggles of alcohol and drug abuse, and its connection to homelessness in Atlanta. During our MLK rendition of The Collision Project, I rewrote the song to better fit the feeling of this show and titled it “Freedom Land March.” Although I rewrote the song, I still focused on a marginalized voice and sang for people from whom society would rather not listen.
“Freedom Land March”
Marching one step at a time
They say be nonviolent but they took what’s rightfully mine
Marching to freedom land
Don’t make a big fuss
You’ll scare the white Man
Holding hands holding hand in hand
Sing to your grave march to freedom land
I’m sick and tired of the sit-ins man
I think it’s time for a new plan
I can hear those white folk
whistling at me
They treat me like a dog
Like a damn monkey
I swear to god if a cracker put their hands on me
I’m tired of nonviolence
I’ll have revenge you’ll see
Holding hands holding hand in hand
Don’t make a fuss
Don’t scare the white man
I’m sick of all the singing ‘bout the promised land
We’ll never have rights what don’t you understand?
The night the men came daddy was asleep
I saw the white robes saw the sheets
My mama got hanged on the dogwood tree
They tried to grab me tried to grab me
I could’ve fought back, but daddy said wait
No next time I won’t make the same mistakes
Nonviolence that ain’t working man
They killed my mother
It’s time to be a man
My bullets sing like no other
It’s time for a new plan
I swear to god if a cr*cker touch my baby brother
I’m grabbing a gun to kill a white man!
Because I rewrote the song, intensified it and made it a lot more emotionally strenuous, memorizing it proved challenging, and I messed up a lot of times in rehearsal. My director and stage manager felt my panic and made a space where I could safely do dangerous work. Each time I performed that rewritten song, I felt my body shake with the rage of my ancestral line speaking through my skin. In this safe space, I was able to rip apart the societal guards preventing the purity and harshness of my black voice. In this safe space, I was able to start the real collision process and walk the line an actor must when they slip into their optimal position and begin dangerous work.
The slipping is more like drowning; you become a submarine and delve deep into a sacred space. In this space, you’re not acting, you’re not portraying a character, you’re not reciting lines — you are creating something new, from the depths of you. Even if some of the lines are the same from the summer, the words of Dr. King, the power in his voice, rewrites the meaning and submerges them in holy water. Every actor on that stage that King Day could feel the power. We were no longer actors; we transcended to pure movement. This is The Collision Project.
Backstage, before the start of the show on MLK Day, the audience was full, but their hearts were empty. Even if they weren’t aware, their hearts were empty, and it was our job to fill them and remind them what it means to move forward in this world. Remind them how far back we’ve gotten in our America. Before we walked on stage, Dr. King’s speech that culminated the march from Selma to Montgomery played through the loudspeakers in the house.
Our cue to enter from backstage was “…the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” — a beautiful line, and a symbolic one. That line was our cue to enter, our cue to move. It began with Martin, but it ends with us, with the legacy that he left. At the end of the performance, we ended with a curtain call, held hands and bowed.
Reflecting that King Day night, at first I was upset. We didn’t conclude this project with a circle. But then I realized, we did. Holding hands at the edge of the stage, with our hearts open, the audience was the other half of the circle. We had done a part of our part, and now it’s your turn. It was instilled in us early on that the end goal of The Collision Project was to groom us to become agents to save the world. I’m just now beginning to understand what that means and what it feels like. Looking into the audience, into the other side of the circle, I saw a sea of children with their own small sparks and undeveloped flame. We’ve done part of our part, and now it’s your turn. It starts with us and ends in a circle. Now move…
The Alliance Theatre’s Palefsky Collision Project is an amazing opportunity for teen artists in Atlanta in any field to come together and collaborate on a theatre piece. If you’d like to get involved you can go to the Alliance Theatre’s website; they are currently holding interviews for the 2019 Summer Collision Project! Check them out if you are interested, it’ll change your life.