By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
Angela Wilson, playwright and founder and president of the AngelWing Project, wrote and directed a play about the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker’s strike that will debut this weekend in Anne Arundel County.
“Tears of the Soul” tells the story of a Black family in 1968’s Memphis, during the two months and four days sanitation workers strike.
“I’ve always had a passion for the arts,” Wilson told the AFRO. “And having been involved in the arts, I wanted to start my own performing company. We’ve been performing now for about a year and a half. This is our third full production and we’re just very, very excited about this play.”
The years-long relationship between AngelWing and Chesapeake Arts Center, where the play will be performed, continues to develop and grow.
“Because of just the shows that we present and the way presented ourselves, I was approached by the executive director for some kind of partnership,” Wilson said. “Our mission aligns with their mission and we’re just trying to bring good shows to that community.”
Chesapeake is located in Brooklyn Park, the lowest-income community in Anne Arundel County.
“I live in Anne Arundel County, and I wanted to be involved in the arts, but I had to go either to Baltimore or other places,” Wilson said. “So I wanted to do something in the area for people and so they can come and enjoy the type of theater that they would be able to go to D.C. and see, or Annapolis and see at some of these more well-known theaters.”
The play takes place during one of the most fraught and tumultuous times in American history, 1968; and specifically straddles a tragedy that eclipsed many other national crises: the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After helping secure civil rights victories in the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, King made advances in human and labor rights. King’s speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” was delivered in support of Memphis strikers.
The play pushes in on one Memphis household, months into the strike, struggling with having the high hopes, from King’s presence, dashed when he is assassinated in 1968.
While Wilson and her cast went through archival and documentary materials to research the reality of Memphis at the time, it uniquely benefits from a first-hand contemporary account of the strike.
“Mr. Cleophus Smith from Memphis, Tennessee, is one of the original sanitation workers who participated in the strike and recalls vividly what it was like to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Mountaintop” speech and how risky it was to stand up for justice during that time,” an AngelWing press release said.
Wilson interviewed Smith personally as part of her research, and shared recordings with her cast. Smith will be in attendance at the debut and will participate in a “talk back” segment after the play where he will answer questions about his experiences.
Roxie Johnson plays Maxine, a family friend of the central family, the Barneses. As the strike wears on, Maxine grows increasingly impatient about her deteriorating conditions.
“I would say that Maxine is supportive, because she has no choice,” Johnson told the AFRO. “They have to go out and do it, but she is reluctant. The longer that it goes on, you can see that it is affecting her and her lifestyle. Even though they were already not making much money, the idea of not having any money, is just too much for her to handle.”
Johnson sees a similar conflict the current moment.
“There are a lot of protests happening right now, all over our country about one thing or another: women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and some people are a little skeptical about these tactics of marching, because they feel like nothing is going to change,” Johnson said. “Every time somebody gets off, after a Black person is killed by the police, they become less and less optimistic about that approach. So they turn inward and become apathetic, and so I do see that as a parallel, this, and Maxine’s feeling about it.”
The “Tears of the Soul” begins April 28 at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Anne Arundel County. For more information go to theangelwingproject.org.