When George Floyd was murdered in May, Gamal Abdel Chasten couldn’t protest in the streets for family health reasons—but he knew that he needed to do something. His friend Marieke Gaboury called, asking him to write a piece that was eight minutes and 46 seconds; the length of time the police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck, slowly suffocating him while he called out for help.
“We thought, ‘Who’s going to see it?’” Chasten said. “Everyone is in the same boat, it’s all virtual, do it ourselves.” And so, Chasten and Gaboury started planning what would become a nationwide event with the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans, where they had recently done work.
“Those conversations helped fuel what this could be,” he said. “The idea was that we would have two theaters per region. We exceeded that and got a commitment from each partner to get the word out to their base and do some type of production long-term.”
Now 24 theaters around the country, including Marin Theatre Company and the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, are partners in the Breath Project Virtual Festival on Sat/24 and Sun/25, with 24 world premiere works created by artists of color.
“Once we got it going, there was no turning back,” Chasten said. “I’ve been in many rooms where people were talking about the diversification of American theater and we wanted to tackle that. This seemed like an opportunity to do good work, and in memory of John Lewis, get in ‘good trouble.’”
They received 65 original works when they put the call out in August, including slam poetry, dance, and monologues. From those, they picked 24, which will be performed. All work that met the submission guidelines will be archived on the website.
A director, playwright, actor, and core member of the group Universes (which contributed “Party People,” about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, to the Berkeley Rep several years ago), Chasten says theater is his natural way to express himself.
“It creates a world to help dispel reality for a moment, so you can hear the message and walk away with something,” he said. “At Universes’ talkbacks, I would hear the after-effects. Will it change the world in a huge macro way? Maybe not, but it’s another brick in the wall. Or rather, we’re taking the wall down, so it’s a brick out of the wall.”
Chasten says it’s not easy to create a piece that is eight minutes and 46 seconds, and what they got was creative and fearless. He’s excited about getting the work out there and the conversations about racial justice it can start, he says.
“In American theater right now people are listening, but they’re still beholden to their board, and when it comes down to it, they’re running a business,” he said. “The power for us is in partnership and not finger pointing. It’s like we want to work with you to help you dismantle and then build–not just dismantle.”
THE BREATH PROJECT VIRTUAL FESTIVAL Sat/24, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.; Sun/25, 5 p.m., free. Registration and more info here.