Face Off: Where one can sing, take a deep look at social activism, or examine a rigged school system

Getting kids to look up from their smartphones is a challenge. Getting African American kids to see that there's something relevant for them in the theater world is also a challenge.

Face Off Theatre Company's 2020 season hopes to meet that challenge.

"We have to make them believe that it's something interesting," Face Off co-founder Micealaya "Mickey" Moses says with a laugh. "I think that people's perception of theater is Shakespeare, or 'Death of a Salesman,' stuff like that... They don't know that pieces like 'Smoldering Fires' exists, they don't know that pieces like 'Pipeline' exists."

"Smoldering Fires" tells the story of two boys fighting to change their troubled neighborhood. "Pipeline" is about a mother facing what seems to be a school-to-prison pipeline rigged against young men like her son. They're both on the Face Off 2020 season schedule. 

Season opener, "Crowns" by Regina Taylor, follows a young woman who travels down south from her violent Chicago neighborhood to find her roots with her church lady relations, the ones wearing "crowns,"  fancy, elaborate hats.

The play-with-music has a lot of gospel, but there are more genres -- Moses hopes youth will see "Crowns" and realize, "I can rap, too? In a show?"

One can rap on stage, or take a deep look at social activism, or examine the struggles of kids in a rigged educational system? "Oh, we can talk about this in a show? I don't have to do some plays by some old people who aren't alive anymore and don't know what I'm going through?" Moses says with a laugh.

Intentional topics, talking back

Face Off, since forming in 2015 as the theater wing of Kalamazoo's Black Arts and Cultural Center, has worked to entertain audiences members, and to spark conversation among them.

Marissa Harrington, co-founder and artistic director, says, "Our topics are intentional."

Examples of Face Off's work provoking conversation include "Detroit '67," a gritty look at the 1967 riots and their repercussions in this decade; "The Mountaintop," showing the personal life of Martin Luther King; "eLLe," a collaboration with Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, looking at the intersection of LGBTQ and black life.  
Micealaya ”Mickey” Moses, Face Off co-founder, season planning/New Play director; Marissa Harrington, co-founder, artistic director, ”Crowns” director.
"We're intentional because we would like to create conversation. We want people to think, we want people to get challenged. Get mad, get sad, get glad. We want that, and then to take a step further, we want them to respond in a communal space, about how they're feeling," Harrington says.

As the house lights rise at the end of a show, Face Off hosts talkbacks with the audience. Sometimes these lead to "difficult conversation," says Earlene McMichael, marketing and social media manager. 

Last season, "some of the talkbacks got heated," McMichael says, "not like heated in a bad way, like everyone wants to fight or anything --"

"Like, with passion" Harrington interjects.

Audiences were "really being just transparent, really honest," McMichael continues. After her play "You're Gonna Learn Today," which McMichael wrote as one of the pieces for last July's New Play Series at the Black Arts Festival, "some people came up in tears, and they wanted to further engage and talk, say, 'hey, that story you told? That was my story!'" 

To discuss passion-provoking issues in the 150-seat space of the Epic Center's Jolliffe Theatre, Harrington says, "as a community, there's a healing aspect to that. Because our audiences are very diverse. They look like Kalamazoo, in my opinion. Age, sex, socioeconomic, race, religion. We have very very mixed audiences. You have people talking to each other that probably never see each other or cross paths, ever."

People of differing backgrounds discussing issues in one space is a rare thing these days.

"Because of this" -- Harrington holds up her smartphone -- "right?" 

People might discuss, or more likely argue about, the issues of the day on Facebook, but it's increasingly isolating and bubble-making. 

At Face Off talkbacks, "a lot of times they feel passionate about something, and they see our show, get a different perspective, and they go 'Huh! I didn't think about it that way.' But art does that. If you're on Facebook, or watching MSNBC or Fox News, you're kind of isolating yourself to your own thoughts and beliefs. But art catches you off-guard," Harrington says.

Art can be tricky, she says. "It makes you think, 'Oh, I'm coming to get entertained.... Oh, wait, I'm thinking.... Huh!'"

'See yourself in this work'

Face Off tries to stay current, connecting their productions to what's happening now nationally and locally. "It's not a new thing to respond to what we see going on, it's just something we do," Harrington says.

"Yes, Black Lives Matter, we've done that. We've done LGBTQ rights, we've done that. Everybody's doing that now, but we're talking about the next thing. That's what's exciting about being with this company, is staying five steps ahead, responding to what's going on right now and not what's trendy, I guess."

When planning this season, "it hit me, no one is talking about the intergenerational dynamics. No one in theater, in my opinion, is talking about the next generation, what they're dealing with, how they're interacting with us, how they're interacting with their world, and how it all comes together. No one is talking about that," Harrington says. 

"What's happening at this moment is the generations coming up behind us -- I don't know, what are they, Z?" she asks. From Boomers to Gen-X to Millennials, all are "pointing their finger at the last generation, saying 'You don't get it!' and not seeing how we're all affected by what's going on in the world," Harrington says.

Harrington thinks back at how she got into theater at 12, how she was mentored, and realizes that it's time for her and the staff of Face Off to become the mentors. Right behind them is "the next generation coming up, because I'm almost 40 and I had to realize, oh my God, I'm not a 'youth' anymore!" she says.

Face Off wants to give a chance to theater kids of color, including those who might never have thought of themselves as a potential theater kid.

The company is open to those of all ages who ask "can I try?" Mickey says. "Yes! Please try! And we get them up there, we give them the tools that they need to get better."

Harrington says, "Theater for young audiences is happening all over the country. The challenge is that I don't think theater for young audiences addresses all youth across the board."  

Faceoff wants young audiences and participants, Harrington says. "Not just 'come watch this.' You can do this yourself, see the work, and you can see yourself in this work."

Face Off 2020 Season

Feb. 27-March 1, "Crowns" by Regina Taylor. Teen Yolanda escapes a self-destructive path in her dangerous Chicago neighborhood to spend time with her grandmother down south. She's introduced to the "hat queens," women who wear elaborate hats to church and major life events. 

In Chicago, Yolanda is "very lost," director Marissa Harrington says. "And her mom, as a lot of our parents would, goes, 'I'm going to send you to your roots. You need to get back to your roots because you are losing yourself.'" 

It's about "teaching her African traditions, rituals, customs, in the form of storytelling, in the form of gospel music, in the form of the culture of hats." 

Spanning from gospel to hip hop, the play-with-music also travels a "journey of African American music as it is in relation to American music."

Moses adds, "It's about how, in the African American community, we've told our stories through song, and we've taught our lessons through song. And we've survived through song." 

May 20-23, "Smoldering Fires" by Kermit Frazier. Two boys struggle with wanting to change their troubled neighborhood.

Moses says that with this play, "We get to reach out to young black male youth, which is something that I feel is ignored in theater sometimes."

The boys learn about the Civil Rights movement and how activism was applied long ago, but ask how can that address crime and other problems in their world? "There's a lot of young people who feel that the world is against them and there's nothing we can do about it. There are no changes we can make, it is what it is, so I just have to go with the flow," Moses says.

"How can we make change? How can young voices make change? A lot of young people think that's the grown-ups' job. No, you can have a voice in things," Moses says. The play's message is, "You can fix the problems in your community just as well as anyone else." 

July 9-12, Summer New Play Series, Black Arts Festival, "I Am Grace," Vickie G. Hampton. A family in the 1940s experiences an unspeakable violent event and must find its way to forgiveness and redemption.

Face Off has had a new volunteer among them for the past year, Hampton, who'd just moved to Kalamazoo from Atlanta, Ga. They had no idea she was a playwright who's had work staged at the National Black Arts Festival until recently. While Harrington was scouting for new work, Harrington said Hampton spoke up: "'Oh, by the way...'" Harrington laughs. "And it's a phenomenal play!"

Nov. 12-15, "Pipeline," Dominique Morisseau. Morisseau wrote "Detroit '67," which Face Off staged in 2017.  She also wrote "Blood at the Root," recently on Western Michigan University Theatre's stage, and the Temptations musical "Ain't Too Proud" now on Broadway. "She's a big deal" Moses says.

"Pipeline" is about a mother's effort to keep her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline. This is a current topic locally, Harrington points out. "Kalamazoo Public Schools is about to hire a new superintendent, and the school-to-prison pipeline was a huge issue in the superintendent search.

It's also relevant to the struggle over Michigan's third-grade reading law, which requires third-graders to hit reading levels or be held back. "Studies are showing that by third grade, if you don't hit your marks, you're probably going to jail -- it's just crazy! And nobody is talking about it!" Harrington says.

For tickets and more information, go here

Photo: Face Off Theatre Company, from left, Christie Coleman, Community Outreach Coordinator (actor, singer); Kai Harris, Production Manager (actor, director, playwright); Earlene McMichael, Brand Marketing and Social Media Manager (actor, playwright); Marissa Harrington, Co-Founder and Artistic Director (actor, director); Betty Lenzy, Volunteer Coordinator (actor); Bianca Washington, Co-Founder and Youth Programs Director (actor, director); Shea-Lin Shobowale-Benson, Stage Manager (actor, playwright); Micealaya ("Mickey") Moses, Co-Founder, Company Dramaturg and Season Planning/New Play Development Director (playwright). Photo by Mark Wedel

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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