Passage Theater’s annual Solo Flights series returns with two presentations featuring a single performer: “To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton,” running the weekend of February 8 through 10.
Written and performed by Richard Bradford of the King of Prussia-based Iron Age Theater, the play resurrects the voice and spirit of the social activist, revolutionary, and chairman of the Black Panther’s Illinois chapter. Hampton was 21 when he was shot and killed by the Chicago police in 1969. With evidence indicating he was assassinated, his death remains controversial.
And “Bicycle Face,” written and performed by Philadelphia-based theater artist Hannah Van Sciver, will be performed February 15 through 17. The work is described as “a multidisciplinary, multimedia theatrical joyride through the feminist movement and its unlikely relationship with the bicycle.” It uses live music, projections, and puppetry.
As part of its effort to create community dialogue regarding themes and social issues, Passage’s February 8 presentation of “To My Unborn Child” includes a discussion with an historic and controversial figure, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
Interested in the choices, we offered Passage Theater artistic director Ryanne Domingues to share her thoughts:
Human beings are complicated and nuanced. And therefore, so is their history. There are multiple sides to every story we have been told. That fact seems more evident than ever now, as we try to balance and parse through all of the information that our technology rapidly brings to us each day. To further complicate matters, we have to evaluate the lessons our ancestors taught us while taking into account the world that they were living in at the time. We may not know that world. We may not agree with that world. And therefore, we have to evaluate their world against ours, and see if their actions and teachings still apply to us in our present.
Both “To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter From Fred Hampton” and “Bicycle Face” ask us to follow the stories of historical figures in their own time, and then ask ourselves if the lessons they learn are applicable to ourselves in the present. The Civil and Women’s Rights Movements of the late 1960s took place in a much different America than we know now. Since the death of Fred Hampton, we have taken huge steps forward in the civil rights movement, and have even seen an African American president.
Women’s rights have also taken leaps forward in terms of seeing many more women in the workplace and in leadership roles in our institutions. However, our country is still deeply divided by racism and sexism in our communities and government. We still have systems in place that oppress a large majority of our population. In light of all of our progress, are we truly a united country?
In a world where men and women of color are still being slain by police, I wonder what Fred Hampton would be thinking right now. I wonder how we would react to his murder. I wonder if we would allow for it to happen. Luckily, we will have Chairman Bobby Seale visiting Passage on February 8, a man who can give us some perspective and insight into these questions.
As the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, he helped Fred Hampton to set up the Illinois chapter of the Party, and therefore knew him personally. Chairman Seale was a political activist during those turbulent times, and he now tours around the country lecturing and sharing his stories with universities. He is now 81 years old.
Not having been alive during the Civil Rights Movement of that time, I want to ask him: what can we learn from the movement that you and Fred Hampton created? Have we made any progress that would warrant a different approach to political activism today? What can today’s young people learn from the life of Fred Hampton?
“Bicycle Face” also takes us on a journey from our past to our present, and even moves us into our future. How have our society’s views on gender and feminism changed over the years? And how will our movements now affect those of the future? The construct of this show sets up a vivid reminder that we are currently living the stories that our children will be learning about in their history books and college theory classes.
It’s terrifying to think about. But it’s also what makes us alive. It’s what makes our inquiry and investigation into these issues so important. It’s what makes us want to jam out, get weird, try, fail, and keep digging. It’s why every single little discovery about ourselves and the world we live in is extraordinary.
Whether speaking at a rally, or simply riding a bike, all of the characters in this year’s Solo Flights are revolutionaries. I hope we can look at these characters and recognize the humanity of their actions within the context of their time. But more importantly, I hope we can be open to what they teach us about ourselves in the present.
Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. $27 ($65 for the Seale event). 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org
This article was originally published in the February 2019 Trenton Downtowner.