In a second floor studio space inside First Congo Church, a group of Memphians gathered, exchanging hugs and handshakes, and asked each other about their families. Typical of a Memphis gathering, the group was split evenly between black and white, and typical of a Memphis gathering, they were all happy to see each other. Half were MPD officers, the other half convicted ex-offenders.
“I’m happy, but also a little sad, because I like this. I really do,” said Clayborne Taylor. “This journey in my life… I have enjoyed this.”
The group had gathered for the final session of Playback Memphis’ Performing the Peace initiative, which was designed by Playback executive director Virginia Murphy and her team as a tool for dismantling social and emotional barriers between communities and law enforcement. The Memphis Police Department is an active partner in the program, as well as Mid-South non-profit LifeLine to Success, which helps ex-offenders reestablish their lives after release from incarceration.
The Playback model of theatre is unique and affecting. At a performance, the audience supplies the actors with real stories about their lives, which are then explored through experimental language and movement. Some stories are funny, some tragic, some preposterous or magical. But all of them are real and immediate.
Beginning in September, the officers and ex-offenders met a couple times a week, training in the methods of Playback theatre, first separate from each other, but joining into one group for the final eight sessions. The process is an exercise in empathy and understanding, but the learned skill at the heart of it is deep listening. For this final session, most of the time was spent seated on folding chairs in a loose circle, riffing off each other’s thoughts, finishing each other’s sentences.
“Communication is letting out the bad stuff to make room for a happy heart,” said Lakita Dickerson. “I listen differently now. I’m listening for your one true point. This is important for officers but also for felons. It’s where change starts. Real communication.”
Karen Lesley nodded her affirmation. “We’ve created a rapport with each other that will carry onto the streets,” she said. “I never thought I would say that. I kind of have a peace about me now. I don’t feel as overwhelmed anymore, thanks to Playback.”
After a year of national headlines about armies of armored enforcers and mobs of unruly citizens waging inevitable war on the streets, Performing the Peace stands in defiance to that narrative, and the participants know it. There was an undercurrent of pride and revolt in the language they used during the two-hour workshop. There wasn’t any mention of us and them, we and y’all. Instead they used words like openness, understanding, friendship, trust.
“This kind of communication increases trust, which increases health. Personal health and a community’s health,” said Richard Rouse. “It teaches us to see people as individuals. It’s not a group of this, that, or the other. It’s friends, neighbors.”
Mr. Taylor took the thread further. “Being able to listen to an individual instead of listening to my thoughts about that individual.”
“People you live with, your spouse, girlfriend, your parents… they ask ‘What did you do today?,’” said Albert Howard. “And you say: ‘I went to work, and I had lunch with the police.”
The entire room roared with laughter, in on the joke.
“But that’s rare in our community,” said Ms. Dickerson. “It’s shocking to people.”
“Well, you’re writing a new narrative,” said Playback’s Virginia Murphy.
The session ended, but nobody left. They stayed, laughing and talking, lingering together.
Playback Memphis is racing to meet its fundraising goals by the end of 2015, which, if reached, will allow the company to engage more Memphians through Performing the Peace. Funding will also allow them to expand their other programming, like Be the Peace, their anti-bullying program which has reached over 500 Shelby County students through Creative Life, Inc. and KIPP Collegiate Middle School.
Playback’s next public performance, part of their continuing Memphis Matters series, will be held Saturday, December 5, 7:30 p.m. at the TheatreSouth Space, on the southeast corner of First Congregational Church, in Cooper Young. Tickets are $15 or $12 for students and seniors.
Matt Timberlake has written about Memphis history and culture for 15 years. He also writes about things that grow, like children’s brains and vegetables.