- Associated Press - Friday, September 5, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - On Aug. 24, about 40 theater artists and others gathered at the Regional Arts Commission building on Delmar Boulevard, trying to figure out what they could do about Ferguson.

But Ferguson, in specific, didn’t come up much, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (http://bit.ly/1CdlIUl ). To someone who just dropped in, the participants probably would have looked like members of an ordinary acting class. They walked at different paces, in different styles. They sang songs. They formed, and re-formed, groups.

Only by the end of the evening - when they created short “plays” based on discrimination that they had personally experienced or witnessed - was the connection explicit.

That could be a key first step, said St. Louis actor Jacqueline Thompson. She helped to organize the workshop, which was led by teaching artists from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC and elsewhere.

“I was hoping for some fresh energy,” said Thompson. “They reached out to us and came here to help. I thought it would be good to get artists up on their feet, create some unity. I know what it did for me is spark a flame.”

She pointed out that after Matthew Shepard was murdered in a hate crime, artists from New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project went to Wyoming to interview people from all walks of life. That led to the creation of an acclaimed, widely produced play, “The Laramie Project.” Since the workshop, Thompson said, she has been thinking about doing something similar here.

That, of course, will take time - which, actor Ed Reggi said, is entirely appropriate.

“I think a year from now, we will see plays and slam poetry that was fostered (at the Aug. 24 event),” said Reggi, who helped organize two earlier gatherings to address what some artists have termed “the Ferguson moment.” ”Already, the seeds are planted. In time it will become something that looks more like art.”

Another actor, Shanara Gabrielle, thinks it would be helpful if a big organization such as the Theatre Communications Group threw its weight behind further work. That could maintain a national focus after the cameras leave. She pointed out that in the past, national theater efforts have coalesced around AIDS and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Locally, “artists interested in the same issue were all in the same place at the same time,” last Sunday, she said. “I would like to have more of that. A national conversation could really happen.”

Andrea Purnell, actor and artistic director of the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agreed that getting artists together is critical. Working in different disciplines, with different theaters, musical troupes or galleries, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what.

“I am all about the assembly,” she said, “about bringing together folks who want to use their art for good.”

Some people have been part of the conversation for a long time, observed Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the Black Rep. On Sept. 10, the troupe opens its 38th season with “Purlie,” a musical about a young black preacher who inspires his congregation to stand up to oppression.

“The work we do at the Black Rep consistently and historically speaks to what happened in Ferguson,” Himes said. “‘Purlie’ is a perfect example of a response to what has transpired: Civil disobedience.

“Everything that’s said in this play, we could say to the police in Ferguson right now. Our work has always responded to Ferguson - it is the body of our work.

“We don’t have to go out and create something special. We have been addressing this for 38 years.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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