a new documentary play
by April Yvette Thompson
Black Lives is the tentative title of Tony-winning producer, writer and actor April Yvette Thompson’s new play directed by Jessica Blank (writer/director of The Exonerated). Black Lives is a documentary play in the vein of The Exonerated taking first-hand testimony from African-Americans who have been the targets of racially driven police brutality. The play will be based on first person testimony and performed by a rotating group of well-known actors in an effort to draw attention to the most recent police brutality cases that increasingly result in the loss of innocent Black lives.
The Exonerated is a powerful piece of political theatre that was instrumental in former Ilinois Governor, George Ryan’s, decision to reverse the death penalty. It ran off Broadway for a year and a half with a swinging cast of celebrities who came together to use theatre to shed light on the injustices and inequities of the legal system. A system which overwhelmingly executes people of color and poor people who cannot afford DNA testing as part of their defense. The text of the play were the words of the exonerees.
Jessica Blank is the playwright who researched those stories and court cases. She and co-author, Erik Jensen interviewed 100’s of Exonerated people and their families. They read thousands of court transcripts and in a 3 year time period, they were able to find common threads in the stories of six exonerated people and put those words and court documents into a compelling dramatic structure that could be used as a living piece of political theatre.
Political in that it takes the personal and makes it political. Using theatre's strongest tool: empathy. The audience listens to the exonerated people tell their stories in direct address. So the audience is no longer watching a system, but rather identifing with the people the system failed. The play puts a face to the death penalty and once seen, the racial and economic bias that is inherent in the process became a reality that could no longer be overlooked.
Black Lives will have a similar goal. April Yvette Thompson will conduct interviews with victims and their families, research the histories of cases, access court documents and construct the script in an effort to show the personal fallout of a militarized police force with limited training, the legal loopholes that allow a citizen’s rights to be abused and how unspoken racial profiling and bias underpins every single case of police brutality.
Why April decided to write this play?
Raised by radical activist parents and living through 3 race riots in my childhood shaped so much of how I process the world. I began my career as a community organizer for The Children's Defense Funds' Black Student Leadership Network creating and running Freedom Schools in Raleigh-Durham and Southeast D.C.
The next step in my career was to adapt a way to use art as advocacy. My CDF mentors, Marian Wright Edelman and the incomparable Lisa Sullivan convinced me that the work I was doing as an artist could have a far greater impact on peoples lives and getting resources to folks. So I went to grad school for theatre. My first exploration into Political Theatre was working on the play, "The Exonerated" based on the testimony of 6 people who were wrongly convicted of crimes and spent 7-26 years in jail for those crimes before they were exonerated. I worked on this play for 3 years and then did the off broadway play, the film and the tour. I was involved in the special reading of the play set up for former Illinois Governor Ryan which was instrumental in his decision to reverse the death penalty sentences in the state of Illinois.
My latest art meets politics projects have been the films and broadway shows I've produced: Blue Caprice (starring Isaiah Washington), Mother of George (starring Esai Morales), Night Catches Us (starring Kerry Washington & Anthony Mackie) and Mother of George (starring Danai Gurira. All of my films are available on Netflix. I was on the producing team of the all black production of Street Car Named Desire and the Tony-winning production of Porgy & Bess.
The recurring theme in my work is to place those who have been objects: namely people of color, gay, trans people at the center of the story and their struggles for economic and civil equality is the through line of my work. Needless to say, stories that mean something are not a lucrative line of work, but rather are driven by the need for the story to be told to create change.
So, since I have the resources and the skill to put together a piece of political theatre tentatively called "Black Lives" about the history of police violence, the militarization of the police force, the use of racial profiling that creates a hyper-violent climate that results in lots of innocent dead black people; I think it's high-time to put these stories at the forefront of the American consciousness and I'm determined to use my professional weight and resources to make that happen.
So essentially, I'm looking for folks who want to tell their stories by any means necessary. I'm happy to meet with you in person, by phone, via Skype. Whatever works for you, I will put myself at your disposal.
Thanks for your time and your commitment to struggle.
Black Lives Team Bios
April Yvette Thompson (Playwright/Project Director) is a Tony-winning producer, writer, actor working across media developing work that is both political and personal. Telling the untold stories and how folks move from the personal to the political when their values are challenged. April's theatre credits include: The Clybourne Park, Exonerated, Medea, Macbeth, Lear, Raisin in the Sun, From the Mississippi Delta, etc April’s Film/TV credits include The Exonerated, Accidental Husband, Blue Caprice, Backwards, Blue Bloods, Gotham, Babylon Fields, “Law & Order” & “Third Watch, etc.m As SimonSays Entertainment Director of Development, April produces award-winning Sundance indie addressing issues from the legacy of Civil Rights attorneys and black panthers in Night Catches Us, the plight of fatherless black boys in Blue Caprice, the struggle of a Latina transgendered teen in Gun Hill Road to an African immigrant woman's battle to find her place in America in Mother of George. In the broadway producing world, April was on the Tony-winning producing team of the longest-running Broadway production of Porgy & Bess (Tony for Best Musical Revival) starring Audra MacDonald (Best Actress Tony) and the all black version of A Streetcar Named Desire. As a playwright, April is developing her second play in The Miami Trilogy, Good Bread Alley, with support from NYSF, NYTW, Arsht. Her first play, Liberty City was an off Broadway hit at New York Theatre Workshop (creators of Rent, Once the Musical) and was nominated for Drama Desk, Outer Critics, Lortel & AUDELCO awards Liberty City has toured the United States. April writers stories of folks from the diaspora becoming politicized by epic events that transform their lives and force them to take a stand.
Education: BA, Vassar College; MFA, Rutgers University
AprilYvetteThompson.com and SimonSaysEntertainment.com
Jessica Blank (Director) is an actor, writer and director. With Erik Jensen, she is author of THE EXONERATED, a play based on interviews they conducted with over 40 wrongly convicted death row inmates (Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Ovation Awards; also awards from Amnesty International, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Death Penalty Focus). THE EXONERATED has been seen by Supreme Court Justices, Attorneys General, and judges across the country, and Governor George Ryan of Illinois has cited THE EXONERATED as a contributing factor in his decision to commute the sentences of over 150 inmates on Illinois death row. It was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, and "Living Justice," their book about the criminal justice system and the making of THE EXONERATED, was published in 2005. Their documentary play AFTERMATH, based on interviews with Iraqi civilian refugees in Jordan (NYTW, 2009) was nominated for two Drama League Awards. They are at work on a new politically-oriented documentary play in collaboration with musician Steve Earle. Their play HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC completed a sold-out run at the Kirk Douglas Theater in June. With April Yvette Thompson, Jessica co-wrote LIBERTY CITY (NYTW 2008) which was nominated for Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards. TV writing work includes THE NEGOTIATOR for Gaumont TV (EP Tom Fontana); TV development includes Fox TV Studios, 20th Century TV, Virgin Produced. TV acting work includes MADE IN JERSEY, BLUE BLOODS, ELEMENTARY, THE FOLLOWING, THE MENTALIST, BORED TO DEATH, RESCUE ME, LAW AND ORDER: CI, THE BRONX IS BURNING, more; film includes THE NAMESAKE and several indies including CREATIVE CONTROL (Grand Jury Prize, SXSW 2015).
Please direct all Licensing & Speaking Engagement inquiries to: