What would late African-American thought leaders say about violence against their people if they were brought back to address the issues of today? How would they employ their hard-won wisdom about effective responses to racism, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s pledge of nonviolence to Malcolm X’s vision of uncompromising revolution?
The Robey Theatre Company’s ambitious A Heated Discussion, by Levy Lee Simon, imagines just such a gathering. The world premiere brings together a dozen Black activists, writers, musicians and others to weigh in on the disturbing 21st-century realities of police shootings and other violence against their people.
Those who have been gone for decades or even a century are understandably disappointed to see the ongoing racism so long after Emancipation and the Civil Rights Act. They have been keeping watch and have strong opinions about current events, as well as a few old rivalries. Lorraine Hansberry (Tiffany Coty) accuses Zora Neale Hurston (Vanja Renee) of plagiarism. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Garret Davis) and Malcolm X (David Bollar) debate which is the greater burden, white men or hatred.
Director Ben Guillory, the Robey’s co-founder, CEO and Producing Artistic Director, had the idea for the show, and appears in a pivotal role as a Black soldier. More than 45 participants met in facilitated discussions on Zoom over two years before coronavirus-delayed in-person development. The resulting Heated Discussion is alternately heartbreaking and amusing, but always thought-provoking, with interplay between the characters that feels authentic. Lorraine Hansberry (Tiffany Coty) notes, “We’re not monolithic,” and indeed, plenty of different and insightful views are expressed.
While all the leaders are played by actors who do them justice, some, including Hurston, Malcolm X, James Baldwin (Julio Hanson) and Richard Pryor (Philip Bell) seem practically resurrected onstage. The costumes, overseen by Naila A. Sanders, uniformly (no pun intended) support all the characterizations.
A trio of orishas—Yemaya (Tori-Ann Hampton), the mother goddess; the weapon-wielding powerhouse Oya (Ayonna Michele), associated with fire and transformation; and Oshun (Charyse Monet), the goddess of love—stride on a catwalk above the stage. Projected videos of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and other victims, as well as protests, flank the stage, sparking outrage and the goddesses’ quest for help. The orishas summon the leaders to provide insight and possible solutions to the increased violence against Black people. They occasionally inject themselves into the heated discussion that results.
The least familiar of the summoned is Dr. Frances Cress Welsing (Rosie Lee Hooks), a psychiatrist with controversial views on race and homosexuality. Her sparring with the others is one of the highlights of the show.
The oldest of the esteemed elders is Ida B . Wells (Quonta Beasley), educator, journalist and co-founder of the NAACP. She adds an important perspective, especially when she describes the horrifying treatment of Mary Turner, who was brutally murdered for protesting the lynching of her husband.
Additional highlights include Nina Simone (LaShada Jackson) singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” as Wells and Welsing cry, and Bob Marley (Alex W.S.T. Chumley) singing “Get Up, Stand Up.” Tupac Shakur (Kyle Sparks) describes an encounter that explains his hatred for the police and Maya Angelou (Kimberly Bailey) speaks eloquently, including her observation, “I didn’t live as I did to see my people die in the streets.”
The show has so much to say that it feels like quibbling to note that the running time of about two and a half hours could be pared back, perhaps through cutting some of the video. A Heated Discussion is a unique and fascinating approach to Black history past and present, and an entertaining evening of theater.
The Robey Theatre Company’s A Heated Discussion is performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm through May 15 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre Four, located at 514 S. Spring Street (a block south of The Last Book Store). $5 parking with theater validation is available at the adjacent Joe’s Parking (530 S. Spring Street) Additional parking is located across the street and behind the theatre, including metered street parking (meters active until 8:00 pm). Tickets are $35 and are available here.