Nobody knows how the crisis that we are currently experiencing is going to turn out. The questions What are we to do? and How are we to go on? are at the center of The Freewheelin’ Insurgents, the thoughtful and exhilarating 23-minute black-and-white film by Psalmayene 24. It’s his contribution to Arena Riffs, a three-part, commissioned, filmed musical series that is a project of Arena Stage. A “Riff” seems like an especially appropriate label for work that encourages its characters and its audiences to give themselves permission to give attention to the unsettling moment they are living through now so that they can imagine a tomorrow.
The plot: In the midst of the pandemic, with theaters and other public gathering places (their primary source of income production and career development) closed down, The Insurgents, a group of Black American actors (“each one aching for revolution of one kind or another,” the narrator-director tells us) get together in the Washington, DC’s iconic Rock Creek Park to rehearse. But each cast member is so affected by the ongoing events they have each been living through over the past few years, that they are not able to get their rehearsal off the ground.
Then, Zora, the only female member of the troupe, asks one of the most overtly disturbed company members: “Why don’t you tell us what you miss most about doing theater?” This question allows each of the company members to testify and clarify for themselves and each other the connection of their art to their lives as members of their community and the importance of this crucial turning point in the history of their community.
If the text we hear tells us about the turning point we are living in, then the cast we see is the embodiment of this turning point. As 20- to 30-something-year-old local theater craftspersons, whom many of us have seen numerous times over the years, these folks are at a crucial point in the development of their careers. This is their time. And the spaces in which they would normally assert their agency and develop their craft are closed to them. As Black Americans they are at a crucial point for permanently revising the story this country tells itself about its origins and its innocence in the killing and enslavement of the folks that happened during that establishment. As DC citizens, they are at a crucial point in the process of gentrification of the city.
The fact that the rehearsal takes place in Rock Creek Park (and not in Meridian Hill/ Malcolm X Park) may testify not only to the contagiousness of COVID but also to the lack of accessible spaces for Black folks as the city changes. What we call “climate change” only makes the need to address these crises more urgent: more “in your face.” Zora relates an anecdote about what she misses about theater that seems to encapsulate how the turning points these young people are facing are affecting their consciousness. She talks about a fire alarm going off during a performance, the theater being evacuated, then the show resuming afterward from the place they left off. She says about this experience, “If you was sleepin’ befo’ you ain’t sleepin’ no mo’. That’s when you wake up.” That’s a perfect description of the state of mind that The Insurgents find themselves in as they gear themselves up to create again. It’s also a perfect description of the challenge and responsibility that we, the audience, face as the world dares to open again.
Running Time: 23 minutes, with no intermission.
Dante Justin Weaks
Noble Gary Perkins III
Church Louis E. Davis
Zora Shannon Dorsey
Greg Psalmayene 24
PRODUCED, WRITTEN, AND DIRECTED by Psalmayene 24
MUSIC nick tha 1da
CHOREOGRAPHER Tony Thomas
COSTUME DESIGN Danielle Preston
STAGE MANAGER Michael Donnay
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Aaaron Tucker
CAMERA AASSISTANT. Bria Granville, Othello Banaci
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Kelvin Prather
SOUND MIXER. Gabby Sturgeon, Ivan Basauri
BOOM OPERATORS Camila Franco Ribeiro Gomide, Casey Danielson