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The 50th anniversary of the Watts riots inspires a "cathartic history lesson"

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Roberto Martin riling up the troops.
Sarah Monte
Roberto Martin riling up the troops in the play Riot/Rebellion.

It's been 50 years since the Watts neighborhood of L.A. erupted in 6 days of rioting. Today a theater company in Watts has created a play from the memories of those were were there.

The Watts Village Theatre Company and playwright Donald Jolly will take audiences on a ride back to 1965 in the play "Riot/Rebellion."  

In an ancient storytelling way, actors riff off each other through poetry and fact reporting playing across race, gender and age. Each actor inhabits characters whose lives were intertwined with the Watts riots. 

Carole Simon jumps out of scene from one moment to the next, playing the storyteller then transitioning to the nosy neighbor snooping around everyone's business. Simon said "Riot/Rebellion" is one of the "realest" plays she's ever been in which has become more of a history lesson for her. "I wouldn't even call it a play, its more like a story of what happened 50 years ago and we're just retelling it to everyone," said Simon. 

The play opens this Friday August 14 at the Mafundi Theatre in Watts at one of the exact intersections where the riots took place 50 years ago.  "It's so scary that it happened right here where we are. Like I don't even feel like we're acting, like I'm just trying to relive the characters that lived through this," said Simon. 

Fifty years passed, the cast said police harassment is still happening. "Sometimes I'm leaving rehearsal, I'm seeing cops pulling people over, dragging them out their car right down the street. Or we'll be rehearsing with the doors open and someones yelling cursing at the police and I'm just like, this is what we're talking about 50 years ago and its happening right now. Outside when we open the doors is the soundtrack to the play," said Simon. 

"One minute I am an old man, the next minute I'm telling a horror story," said Ashley Wilkerson who, along with the actors, play a variety of characters.  "It wasn't just burning and looting, people were speaking up standing up for their rights," said Wilkerson. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Wilkerson said she hopes the Watts community comes out to affirm, and question what they see in the play and she hopes to meet the future storytellers, actors, and activists that will transform Watts even further. 

None of the actual cast grew up in Watts but may say they feel a responsibility to re-telling the stories through those that lived it.

Actor Roberto Martin said, "There's this one line. We shall never more fall victim to the harassment of the police, tear gas fire, we declare this day from 1965. Then it throws me off, everything I'm saying it's the same thing that's happening. This story its our stories as men of color." 

Jacob Gibson grew up in Kansas City but can relate to the Watts community, "My perspective is always from the outside in and that's what the majority of the country and the world looks at Watts, is from the outside in." 

Javier Ranceros had never been to Watts prior to working on the play, "I don't know anything so in a sense I'm one of the audience members. We're journalists we're reporting on what happened to people from 50 years ago."

Playwright Donald Jolly who is originally from the Washington D.C. area, did exhaustive research digging through old newspapers and interviewing people about their recollections. All of which factored into the creation of the characters in the play. 

Bruce Lemon, the artistic director of the Watts Village Theatre company, is one of the only people involved in the play that was born and raised in Watts. He says he never had much access to theatre growing up. "The significance for the people of Watts to see these stories and tell our own, we're telling them ourselves so we get it right."  Lemon continued, "When you come see "Riot/Rebellion"  you'll see the lives of hundreds of people who grew up in 1965 or 2000, you're going to see lives of the people who have shaped the country and the nation."

Deena Selenow who is the director of "Riot/Rebellion" says, "The piece is primarily testimony interviews, members of the community, actual words by actual people. Having that marriage between documentary and service and theatricality, hyper abstract, comedia, over the top,  moments that really sink in and hit the spot."

Selenow and the rest of the cast all hope that the play sparks meaningful dialogue and conversations in and beyond Watts, "I'm hoping this could be cathartic history lesson experience where we're not pointing fingers but where we're all culpable."

Preparation for the play started back in 2013 when Donald Jolly and Bruce Lemon began doing research and conducting interviews about  how the riots started.  

When Donald Jolly was commissioned to write "Riot/Rebellion," he said he was given a title and a few people willing to be interviewed to start. One of the biggest challenges Jolly said was making sense of all the stories and finding a narrative arc. He explained how they used what's called the joint stock theatre method, where actors performed characters for the playwright based off interviews they did without notes.  

"When I first got to Watts, something reminded of my D.C. youth. So I tried to find a way by relating and listening to the human story behind it all,"  said Jolly. 

One of the voices that found it's way into the play is the story of Lynn Manning. The former Watts Village Theatre Company artistic director who recently passed away. Manning was about 10-years old when the riots broke out and experienced the event in the context of the civil rights movement. Kids like Manning learned a lot of new words that summer like oppression, riot, and curfew. 

"Lynn was a tour de force, genius." Lynn Manning was completely blind from the result of a gun shot to the head. He couldn't see but  knew exactly how to direct a play. He was a mentor for members of the Watts Village Theatre Company like Jolly and Lemon, and he was eager to support emerging artists.  Manning's voice can be heard throughout the play said Jolly. 

"Working with Lynn, it's really hard to describe in words. Tell it like it is, you need to say what needs to be said. Lynn was like that in his own life and own work. Every performer has something Lynn said to them to me," said Jolly.   

The Watts Village Theatre Company is a young group. But the play requires a certain maturity and respect. When Jolly started writing the play it was about 1965 police harassing people of color and then the wave of black lives matter took hold in the public dialogue. And that found it's way into the play. "It's about people feeling disenfranchised and having a voice. The throughline is the artists in the community who took it upon themselves to change things. A community figure in every part of the word," said Jolly. 

Riot/Rebellion starts August 14th at the Mafundi Theatre and runs until September 18. Click here for tickets.

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