A new piece will be shown at the Matthews Playhouse this weekend. “Greenwood” brings audiences back to 1921 and places it in the affluent and historically Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, then casually known as “Black Wall Street,” just as the racial massacre in Tulsa unfolds around them.
The two-act play kicked off on Friday and audiences have two more chances to see the show on Saturday before it closes.
The play features an all-black cast and this is the first time that the work has been fully staged with period lights, sets and costumes. It was the winning submission of the 2021 African American Playwright Groups Festival.
Nick of the WFAE Channel spoke with playwright Coolidge Harris II of California, ahead of the show’s opening Friday. They discussed the story behind the show and Harris’s hopes for his new job.
Nick de la Canal: To begin with, I want to admit that this is not a well-known story. I wonder if you could remind us in a little more detail what sparked these deadly riots in 1921 and how these events unfolded.
Coolidge Harris II: Yeah, so it started with a confrontation between Dick Roland, the black shoe shiner, and Sarah Page in an elevator where he was accused of assaulting her. He then ran home. He was apprehended, and the local newspaper created an uproar, writing huge headlines that a black boy had assaulted a white girl and it brought out a huge angry mob who wanted revenge.
From the Canal: And I understand that there was a confrontation between this angry white mob and a group of black residents who were trying to protect Roland from the lynching. This confrontation turned fatal with 12 people killed – 10 of them white and two black. And then the next day I understand that the violence has just exploded, with dozens of angry white mobs essentially demolishing large sections of the neighborhood and killing a number of people.
Harris: They did it. There was – the number has always been kind of toned down, but there’s about 300 deaths.
From the Canal: Why was this a story you wanted to dramatize?
Harris: Well, we are in the commemoration of the 100 years of the event. This is the one I think it should be said. It was never mentioned – rarely mentioned in media coverage, and I felt it was a story that really needed to be told.
From the Canal: I understand you wrote this during the pandemic. Is it correct?
Harris: Yes. Yeah that’s right.
From the Canal: And you centered the play on a husband and wife couple who run a boarding house in the Greenwood neighborhood, and part of the show is centered around their relationship. And there are other characters, people from the pension or from the neighborhood. There is a visitor. Why did you want to center this show around these everyday people and their personal lives?
Harris: I wanted to humanize it. The goal for me to write this story is not to lose these voices but to make them speak from the grave. And I wanted to humanize her so that when an audience watches the performance, they see real people who could have been there at the time, as they watch her perform in front of them.
The goal for me to write this story is not to lose these voices, but to make these voices speak from the grave.
Coolidge Harris II, on the writing “Greenwood”
From the Canal: Are there any lessons you would like audiences to take away from this show?
Harris: Yes. I wanted to capture the remnants of this dying memory of what once was: a productive and prosperous African-American environment. And I just wanted the world to know that this group of people who did it the right way were robbed of generational wealth. They have not yet received any restitution or redress, and I just felt deeply that this was something the world should know – that those voices will not be lost; their memory will not be lost.
From the Canal: How do you think you’ll feel once the audience sees this for the first time?
Harris: You know, to think that I started writing this play a little over a year ago, that it’s already in front of an audience is just a blessing in itself, and I think that comes from a force greater than me. And so, yes, that would be a very emotional moment for me.
From the Canal: Coolidge Harris, thank you very much for joining us.
Harris: Thank you. Thanks, Nick.
Information on how to view “Greenwood” can be found at matthewsplayhouse.com.