Hundreds show for Ferguson discussion at Penumbra Theatre

It's been more than a month since the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And while the incident may be fading from the headlines, Wednesday night it drew a full house at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

Related: Chaotic scene captured in Ferguson, Mo.

Hundreds of people turned out for a discussion there about the shooting, the long-standing racial tensions surrounding it and the role the arts can play in explaining and easing those tensions.

For example, amid the extensive news coverage of the turmoil in Ferguson, you may have missed this story a few weeks ago: Mary Engelbreit, a St. Louis artist who illustrates children's books, had one of her images blocked temporarily by Facebook.

Her drawing depicts a black woman, a tear in her eye, holding a small boy who has his hands in the air. The caption reads quote "no one should have to teach their children this in the USA."

Ricardo Levins Morales, a Minneapolis artist and a panelist at the Penumbra Theatre discussion last night, said he wasn't surprised by all the online vitriol Engelbreit's drawing brought out.

"She was part of a response sparked by Ferguson that openly identified our country as being an abusive family, that in an abusive family breaking the silence is explosive," he said.

With so much of the social media sphere generating more heat than light about Ferguson, Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra, an African-American theater company, says she wanted to gather people in a physical space to talk about it. Bellamy says such a difficult topic requires a face-to-face discussion.

"Talking about any contemporary issues around race is tied to a history we like to try to forget. And I think that people get scared because they don't know how far that rabbit hole is going to go. What I always say is none of us were there. None of us can be blamed for what happened. But we can all be asked to change it for the future," she said.

The discussion delved not only into race relations, but also tensions within the black community.

The Rev. Matthew Johnson, a theologian and Baptist pastor from Atlanta, said in all the talk about Ferguson, he hasn't heard much that's original from black leaders. Johnson says that makes it easy for people to ignore the real struggles that many African-Americans face.

"What we have is civil rights slogans being tossed around like oratory; it's not even good oratory. It's cliche. And part of the problem with the whole situation is that American racism is cliche. So cliche, that we're able to act as if it's meaningless and not there," he said.

While the audience was racially mixed, people in their teens and 20s seemed underrepresented. But 18-year-old Malik Curtis, who's African-American and the same age as Michael Brown, said it was important to take part.

"I feel that my voice needs to be heard. Because being young and black in this society, it's not easy. And I feel like I need my voice needs to be heard so people can feel what I feel every day," Curtis said.

Also absent from the gathering last night were representatives from law enforcement agencies. Penumbra's Sarah Bellamy says that was deliberate; she says Brown's death warranted a conversation that went beyond policing of African-American communities.

Bellamy is directing people who want to talk about that to a listening session planned by Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau next week.

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