Theater Review - Serial Black Face delves into dark terrain

Actor's Express new production investigates ATL Child Murders and family

Young Atlantans or more recent transplants might not be aware of one of the darkest periods in our recent history. From 1979 to 1981, more than 20 African-American children and adults were murdered in the city. The killings are collectively known as the Atlanta Child Murders, and this trauma serves as the setting for a new play, Serial Black Face. The play's story follows the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter dealing with the aftermath of their missing son and brother during this terrifying time. Playwright Janine Nabers wasn't alive at the time of the murders. She felt affected by the slayings much later, realizing her older siblings — also born in the South — lived the same general area when the children started to go missing. The play, winner of the 2014 Yale Drama Series prize, gets its world premiere at Actor's Express.

"The play really looks at this period in history from the inside out," Director Freddie Ashley says. "It's not an overview or recounting of the events. It's really looking at what it was like for a mother and daughter in this time period going through the ordeal of having a missing child — and how they get through it." Far from the soapy exposé treatment, Serial Black Face follows the intensely personal, emotional journey of one fictional family based on the very real tragedies.

The actress at the center of the drama, Tinashe Kajese, faces a challenging role to inhabit for repeated performances. Kajese portrays mother Vivian. As parent of a 3-year-old boy herself, Kajese says she's aware it will be a difficult role to shake off at the end of the night, even though she is no stranger to intense dramas (she recently co-starred in the Alliance's powerful production of Disgraced). "It's very personal to me," she says. "This is one of the most emotionally challenging plays I've ever done." At the end of the day, she says being deliberate to separate the stage from life is important, "or you're going to go crazy." Regardless, she is excited to be involved in a play where women — and in particular, African-American women — are at the center of the dramatic action, rather than relegated to supporting roles in the narrative.

The play's title, Serial Black Face, may appear controversial at first glance. To be clear, it's not about a character in black face makeup. "The title alludes to the repetition of black people, black faces, that were repetitively being taken during the Atlanta Child Murders when no one had the means to stop it," Nabers says. Another twist on the title, Ashley adds, is it was significant that the killer, Wayne Williams, was ultimately found to be an African-American — especially considering most serial killers at the time like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy were white. The idea the murderer could have been a member of the community where the victims lived heightened a sense of fear. One of the characters is incredulous at the concept of a serial killer with a "black face," but the children disappeared in the middle of the afternoon — without anyone noticing, suggesting the killer appeared physically unthreatening, like any other insider. The term "serial" also relates to the cyclical nature of history, as the playwright stated violence against African-American children remains relevant: "Only now it's #blacklivesmatter. Yesterday it was this," Nabers says. The playwright has been active in the Actor's Express production from casting through rehearsals, balancing her responsibilities as a writer on the Bravo television series "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce."

This play dares audiences to see how other families deal with grief and loss under such extreme circumstances and to view a woman making difficult choices without the color of judgment. While being careful not to spoil the plot, Ashley notes "ultimately there is a thread of hope" that runs through this moving story — and audiences are likely to discover our collective experiences ultimately serve more to unite us than to divide us.

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