//BY LINDA SHRIEVES BEATY
t’s Thursday, six days before opening night of “Division: The Trayvon/Jordan Project.”
In Valencia’s Black Box Theater, 15 actors are scattered on a barren stage. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. They sit on stools, perch on the edge of the stage or stalk around. Many haven’t finished memorizing their lines, so they pace about the stage, scripts stuffed into the back pockets of their jeans.In this play, there are no props, no furniture, no scenery. Instead, the actors come wielding opinions.“Trayvon Martin was a thug.”
“A mother lost her son there. A father lost his son there. That is what came into my head. No matter what happened. What they did or did not do… A family lost their son there.”
“The picture that was shown of this black boy was a picture of Trayvon Martin from years ago. He looks like a little kid.”
“Nobody needs to die for this kind of stuff.”
Strung together, these opinions form a series of monologues—and a play that examines both our differences and desire for peace.
“Our world is divided and we need to figure out why,” said John DiDonna, director of “Division” and the chair of Valencia College’s theater program. “‘Division’ is not about what happened
to Trayvon and to Jordan. It’s about the impact that those events have had, the pebbles that fell into the water and all the ripples that we’re still feeling across the country.”
The play, which opened on Feb. 11 and played to nearly sold-out crowds every night during its six-day run, examines the aftermath and widely varying opinions about what happened in 2012, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin died in Sanford in an altercation with a neighborhood watch volunteer, and when 17-year-old Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville by a customer at a gas station who shot him after arguing with Jordan and a carload of teens about their music.
Onstage, an actor talks about the significance of the Trayvon Martin case. Although many young black men have been killed over the years by police or other authorities, “Trayvon,” he says, “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Part of a yearlong collaboration in Orlando’s theatrical community, “Division” marks the second of three plays that reflect on those incidents. The first, “The Trayvon Martin Project,” was produced jointly by Beth Marshall Presents and Penguin Point Productions, and was staged at Valencia. The third play, “Hoodies,” is scheduled to debut this summer.
To write the script, DiDonna created a playwriting class that worked only on this project. Ten students eagerly signed on for the class, which started in August 2014. During the first month of class, the students reached out to friends—and strangers, including politicians, reporters and photographers who covered the case, and protesters—asking for their opinions and reactions to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
“Personally, I tried to make sure I reached as many people as possible,” said Valencia theater student Carolyn Ducker. “I talked to my best friend, who is black, and her older brother. He dresses in Polos and khakis all the time and is very clean cut, but I learned from him that he is routinely stopped by police.”
Although the students could interview strangers, Ducker thought she’d be more successful in getting honest opinions if she approached friends. However, she tried to find acquaintances with a wide variety of opinions.
“I went to my mom’s office,” Ducker said. That’s where she interviewed a woman who formed the basis of one of the play’s most opinionated characters, who was sympathetic to George Zimmerman, the watch volunteer who shot Trayvon Martin. “Another one of the people I interviewed was an Asian person from the Philippines,” Ducker added. “There, no one is allowed to have guns, except for the police. So she had interesting views on gun control.”
The students and DiDonna had to learn to interview—and respect others’ opinions—without inserting their own or arguing with the people they were interviewing. “It was definitely tough for me to hear some of the things I heard, but you have to remain neutral,” said Valencia theater student Stelson Telfort, who was one of the students in the playwriting class and later acted in the play as well.
Photos of Trayvon Martin demonstrations by news photographer Barry Kirsch served as a backdrop onstage.
The students spent weeks interviewing people—including Barry Kirsch, a freelance news photographer who shot more than 30,000 pictures of the Trayvon Martin case, from the time George Zimmerman turned himself in at the Sanford police station through the trial. One of the other characters portrayed onstage was Francis Oliver, an activist and former NAACP field director from Sanford.
After compiling more than 140 hours of taped interviews—and then transcribing the interviews into thousands of pages—DiDonna and his students shaped the interviews and opinions into a 90-minute play.
The topics addressed in the play range widely, from Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute and gun rights, to the worries of black mothers who have to warn their sons about their behavior in public. Onstage, the actors debate the role of the media in fanning the flames of racism and stereotypes; while others note that social media—including “Black Twitter”—tell the stories of people whose voices aren’t usually heard in mainstream media. One black actress recounts how, growing up in Canada, the races and cultures blended better than they do in the United States. Another character recounts how, as a white American, he discovered what it was like to be in the minority while studying abroad for a year.
The goal, said DiDonna, was to get people to listen to one another—and respect, rather than hate, their differences. “Listening—and having the ability to understand other people—is really what this show is about,” said cast member Jade Rivera.
Just as important as the play, said DiDonna, were the “talkbacks”—question-and-answer sessions in which audience members can talk to the cast and director. Because “Division” was designed to foster conversation on race, DiDonna scheduled talkbacks following each performance of the play.
“We knew that would be a very important component of the play,” said DiDonna. “The play is designed to foster communication, to spark a conversation. The play is an ongoing conversation of clashing viewpoints. And by the end of the play, we don’t give you any answers.”
After the opening night, the cast and members of the audience—including Jordan Davis’ father, Ron, and representatives from the Trayvon Martin Foundation—talked for 30 minutes about the play’s impact.
“I think the play triggered a conversation in the audience. I think a lot of people in the audience didn’t realize that it would have that effect,” Davis said afterward.
Oliver, the community activist and Sanford resident who helped organize many of the Trayvon Martin protests, recognized herself on stage, but said the play forced her to do some soul-searching. “My character, to me, was still living in the past, but these kids were trying to move forward,” she said. “I went home and I replayed this whole play in my head. It seemed as if the young people in the play were trying to move forward, but I was living in the ’60s and ’70s.
“You know, race played a part in the killing of Trayvon and Jordan, but the division in society played a bigger part, because we are so divided into so many different ways. The young are divided from the old, the black is divided from the white. The Methodists are divided from the Baptists. It seems like in every category we can name, there’s division. With this division, sometimes we get animosity, we get hate. We need to strive to come together, talk to each other, listen to each other and understand each other’s differences.”
Another audience member said the play made her uncomfortable at times. “I think I got a headache during the play. I found myself gritting my teeth the whole time,” she said. “But I also found myself thinking, ‘I am guilty of that.’”
Even the actors found the play had changed them.
“You know, we always joke about the headlines that say, ‘Florida Man did this’ or ‘Florida Man did that,’” said cast member Brandon Jimenez. “He’s like the worst superhero ever. It’s funny, but it’s making me a little uncomfortable. I mean, I am ‘Florida Man’…I think ‘Florida Man’ needs to get himself together—and change Florida.”
For the actors, the playwrights, and DiDonna, the “Division” experience may not be over. Leaders in several communities are discussing bringing the play there.
“We’re going further with this,” says DiDonna, who met with Jordan Davis’ family in Jacksonville on Feb. 16, which the city of Jacksonville declared Jordan Davis Day. There, he also met family members of Emmett Till, a black teenager murdered in Mississippi in 1955, and Oscar Grant, who was shot at the Fruitvale BART Station outside Oakland, Calif., in 2009.
And as talks continue for the play to be revived elsewhere, the actors are debating their new roles.
“For us, the cast, it gave us the drive to spread this message: It’s ok to be different, it’s ok to be divided, but don’t belittle or judge anybody for being divided,” said Telfort. “The conversation is still continuing. People are talking about how much of an impact (the play) had on us, how each of us is going to try to find things that we can do to continue to make a change—whether it’s through voting or becoming an activist. We’re all going through that process to see what we can do.”