Passive entertainment has never been the focus for Creative Action Unlimited, an East Greenbush-based nonprofit theater/film production company. Its two latest films certainly attest to that.
“Whitewashed: the racism project,” which will be released online on Friday, dives deep into the impacts of racial oppression in the United States. “The Climb,” which will premiere at the Madison Theatre on Nov. 19 and later online, uses both personal and historical narratives to examine the socioeconomic oppression of Black people.
“Whitewashed” was written by a host of collaborating writers and actors in 2018 and began as a stage production the following year.
“The first year was spent developing the script with the cast,” said Michael Kennedy, the artistic director of Creative Action Unlimited, which spotlights social issues through theater and film.
The show was booked by community organizations around the Capital Region and the cast performed it to sold-out audiences throughout that year.
“We were getting lots of feedback about how important it was for this particular production to have a wide reach and that we should consider doing a film,” Kennedy said. “I was busy doing bookings and thinking from a theater perspective.”
When the pandemic put theaters on pause, everything changed. They crowdfunded $10,000 and collaborated with cast members to turn the stage production into a film. Unlike many productions, each actor/actress contributed their writing, allowing for a variety of perspectives and experiences of racism.
Zoë Lewis was one such cast member, who wrote a monologue for the film.
“[It’s] really special because it’s not just a script that you get and do. The people that you see in it wrote it,” Lewis said.
The actors aren’t playing certain roles as much as they are speaking to specific experiences and systems.
“It’s such a hard piece to describe. . . It’s not a show with characters and a plot but it’s not a documentary,” Lewis said, adding it’s more akin to an “exploration throughout how whiteness has impacted the Black experience.”
Lewis’ monologue specifically speaks to performative activism; when people proclaim on social media or in other social settings, that they support Black lives but their actions tell a different story.
“That’s something that I focused on a lot in the places where I was able to insert my own take because I’m the youngest person in the cast, so most of my experience through life, in general, has been online,” Lewis said. Her piece was partly inspired by an experience at a protest with a friend and seeing a non-Black person who had previously abused said friend was out supporting the cause.
“I was thinking to myself ‘This is so crazy that people who will hurt Black individuals on a personal basis will then go out and be like oh, I’m here to fight for Black lives,’” Lewis said.
As one might guess, filming was no easy feat given the weighty subject matter.
“‘Whitewashed’ can be very heavy, so when Michael was making the schedule she was really conscious of not putting two really heavy pieces all at the same time,” Lewis said. “It’s an emotional piece so it’s just difficult to be in that.”
The production, which also features Shirey Archie, Danielle Colin, Diaka Kaba Hill, Aaron Moore and Siobhan Shea, premiered earlier this month at the Madison Theatre and will be available to view on via Creative Action Unlimited’s YouTube channel 7 p.m. Friday. It will be up through Nov. 3.
Seeing it on the big screen was an interesting experience for Lewis.
“I’m still processing it . . . Jamel Mosely, who edited it, he’s phenomenal. It’s really hard to get things that were done on a stage to translate to film . . . and I just think it managed to translate so well,” Lewis said.
“The Climb” was written after “Whitewashed” and explores similar topics, with a focus on the systems and institutions that have made racism possible, intertwining personal narratives with historical context.
“When you look at ‘Whitewashed’ you look at the very human, personal aspects of it and then you look at ‘The Climb’ and you listen to these very macro . . . institutionalized versions of it but then they’re also drawn [from] these personal monologues,” said Jae Gayle, a cast member of “The Climb.”
For instance, the actors discuss the G.I. Bill (which provided benefits for returning World War II veterans), and how it differently impacted a white father and a Black father.
“We were exploring the G.I. Bill on this macro level and what it was supposed to do,” Gayle said. “Then we hear this monologue that takes it to this super personal human level.”
While working on “The Climb,” actors had to face some historical and personal traumas.
“[Kennedy] is able to make sure that we as people are always being checked in with and having an opportunity to provide feedback,” said cast member Kristoph DiMaria. “Being white and performing in this means I’m often a historical antagonist in the show. While I don’t think the beliefs and values of those characters in any way align with my personal beliefs and values, I still have to do the job of convincingly portraying them and believing them for the sake of the rehearsal process. All of us I think have had to face historical traumas in our own lives . . . and Michael was able to . . . say ‘talk about how you’re feeling’ and that creates a shared narrative of the group which then allows us to help each other and I think more accurately represent what we’re trying to discuss.”
Another challenge was dealing with loaded terms.
“We got to the end of ‘The Climb’ and the first or second read through and realized that nowhere in the script was there a reference to or the word, the n-word,” Gayle said. “And it’s really hard to discuss race in America, systems of race and racism in an authentic way and for that not to be there. That brought up a lot of really interesting conversations. As we went through it was like “Wow, we instinctively stayed away from certain things because . . . Who wants to go there and deal with that?”
Yet, “The Climb” goes there.
“This is the kind of theater that you don’t go into rehearsal and then walk away and return to your life and there’s a great compartmentalized separation,” Gayle said. “This is the kind of theater that, whether you want to or not, invades your bloodstream, your spirit, your soul and you find yourself thinking about it, wrestling with it, coming back to it three weeks, four months, later and really just trying to apply how can I be a better human being because of this work and I think that that’s what’s beautiful about engaging in it as well as watching it.”
“The Climb” premieres live at the Madison Theatre for two consecutive weekends: Nov. 19 and 20 and Nov. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. each evening. Tickets are $20/$15 and can be purchased at creativeactionunlimited.com or the theatre. It will premiere online on December 3 at 7 p.m. and be up through Dec. 8.
Both “Whitewashed” and “The Climb” will also be available for bookings by community organizations as stage productions. For more information visit creativeactionunlimited.com.