By Maricela Lechuga
“The sankofa is an African bird whose head is pointed in one direction and the feet are pointed in the other,” Don Williams said. “The meaning behind it is that in order to move forward in life, one must have an understanding of the past.”
As the director of the UC Santa Cruz African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT), Williams says the sankofa bird is representative of the troupe’s newest play, “The Trial of a Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae.” The play, written by Karani M. Leslie, looks at African-American history through an analytical lens.
Williams hopes that AATAT’s production of the play, which began last weekend, will make viewers question the origins of stereotypical depictions of black people, particularly of black women.
Composed of 25 members, the troupe is the only African-American theater arts troupe in the entire UC system. According to Williams, who founded AATAT 17 years ago, it has helped UCSC by contributing to the recruitment and retention of African-American students. It has also been able to help the students; with the money collected from the performances, the troupe gives annual scholarships to two participants, based on outstanding achievement and leadership.
AATAT productions have ranged from comedy to gospel musicals throughout their two decades of performance. This year’s play, on a more serious note, takes place in a courtroom and follows the character of Victoria Dryer as she sues two stereotypical depictions of black women in the media for having made it harder for her to be successful.
The two prosecuted stereotypes are the Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae characters. Louise is the humble, nurturing archetype seen in such films as “Gone with the Wind.” Mae, on the other hand, an over-sexualized temptress who lures white men to sleep with her. As the trial unfolds and these women have the chance to testify, Dryer begins to see that the stories of these women were unfairly captured by history and that the two women are simply products of a racist society.
Old cartoons are projected in the theater throughout the play and during intermission, revealing many degrading depictions of African Americans. Lisa Evans, a second-year history major who plays the defense attorney in the production, used to watch some of the cartoons as a child.
“I remember sitting there and watching these [cartoons] when I was little and I didn’t know those were supposed to be black people, because when I was six I just thought they were funny-looking people,” Evans said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know anybody who looks like that.’ [This play is] examining how these images are depicted and how we accept them and the ways they get perpetuated.”
These messages of misrepresentation and convoluted histories climax at the play’s end, when the stage transforms to resemble a slave ship and the cast steps forward to recite the names of about 50 slave ships.
Astrid Heim, a third-year student who plays the role of the judge, says the ship emphasizes the significance of memory and oral history as a way of reclaiming one’s history and to prevent it from being lost.
“During these times [not all] slaves were documented, so by knowing these ships, knowing the people [and] the experiences that they suffered on these ships, we’re keeping it alive,” Heim said. “We’re not letting people say that the experience wasn’t that bad. It’s a way of us reclaiming our own history.”
When one showing finished, and the messages and deliberations of the actors had resonated throughout the audience, the Stevenson Event Center fell into complete silence. Until, that is, it was shook by a boisterous standing ovation.
“The Trial of a Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae” will be performed at Santa Cruz High this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.