New Watts play has no easy answers about Black generational trauma and healing
Generally speaking, when we think about our legacy—what indelible mark we want to leave on others—we think of something that we’re proud to leave behind to our kids, the world. It’s uncomfortable to think of the emotional baggage we pass down to the next generation to carry. But, acknowledging the pain is just as important as celebrating the triumphs because that space between the two is where we grow, learn and overcome.
Marty and the Hands That Could, a new play from WACO Theater Center and Watts Village Theater Company, unpacks the many layers of generational trauma within one Black family in Philly. Evocative stories within the story arc are presented to the audience. We are confronted with child abuse, sexual identity, substance abuse, rebuilding a life after being incarcerated and returning from war, the role of the church as a place that of refuge and rejection. However, these people could be anyone. They could—and might be—us, or our families.
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”– César A. Cruz, poet, educator and human rights activist
It’s through deeply flawed characters, though. “We are creating a space in which people can see themselves,” said Joy DeMichelle, who plays Marty’s mother, Tan. “It’s toxic but probable,” she said. It’s unlikely that one family will deal with all of these issues at once, but how the issues are dealt with as separate pieces are relatable.
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
Trauma begets trauma
Make no mistake: This Philadelphia family is the embodiment of dysfunction. From the outside looking in, just how they talk to each may seem like venom. But, there’s no room to look away or retreat in playwright Josh Wilder’s deep and wide exploration of Black generational trauma. Listening to how the characters communicate with each other in the first five minutes jolts you to attention. Snark, smartassery and a penchant for four-letter words exchanged between mother, brothers, father, auntie and baby mama are part of their DNA. But, below the surface are unflappable bonds of love and family.
Even though several characters, that have problems with drugs and bad decisions, are cussed out and told to stay away forever, they come back time and time again. And, what’s more, they are welcomed back time and time again. They’re never deemed unworthy of redemption.
Marty is looking for a second chance after he’s released from prison at the beginning of the play, but he’s not the only one who needs one. His father, Mike Money, has a lot to make amends for.
Mike Money is certainly no saint, but actor Montae Russell explains that his character is trying to “better himself,” said Russell. “One of the first things he says is, ‘I’m in therapy.’ He’s trying to move out of this house and get his own spot. That’s an ambitious cat. It’s just the need to smoke crack gets in the way.”
“He’s not the father of the year, but he’s still a good father,” said Russell. “And, he says that he still cares deeply about his son, [Marty].”
We learn that Mike also considers his sister Neet’s son like his own. (This causes tension between Marty and Junior, but more on this later.) We never find out what happened to Junior’s biological father, but we know that Mike Money has been a consistent father figure in his life.
As the play progresses, we see that Neet is the family’s “safe place,” the person who is always helping others tread water in their sea of self-created problems. But, by the end, Neet is no longer willing to sacrifice her own well-being to save them.
The role of Black women
Neet raises Junior, and by the end, is raising her nephew Marty’s son, too. Sick and tired of seeing the men in her life—her brothers, son and nephew—derail their own lives, she steps in to save the next generation. “I can’t do this anymore,” exclaims Neet, played by Bernadette Speakes.
“She loves hard, she loves deep, she’s loyal. She’s passionate for her family and gives everything she has to [them]. And, I think that being [that] strength can also be a detriment.” She’s losing herself as she pours herself into other people, continued Speakes.
With her hands, Neet is the fixer. She represents the Black women who are here to save America. But, she eventually concludes that saving herself is more important. She can’t keep hoping it’s going to be different next time. Rather, she has to be the one that changes to ensure it is different going forward. Raising Lil’ Mar is her chance to break the chains of a generational curse, to not just protect the child but herself, too.
Neet is just one archetype of Black women in Hands That Could. Angel, Lil’ Mar’s mother, is a sex worker and an addict with children by different men. She is “a woman on the fringes using what she has,” her body, “to get what she wants,” explained Akilah “AK” Walker, who plays Angel.
“The portrayal of Black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype.”—Sociologist Dr. David Pilgrim on Black women typecast as Jezebels
She’s more complex than many portrayals of Black women like Angel. In the span of eight years, she gets sober, dresses less proactively and tries to establish a relationship with the son she gave up.
Tan, Marty’s mother, represents Black church elders who are sometimes immovable on their views which are filtered through the prism of religion. There’s little room for error, and if you stray, there are consequences. Formerly incarcerated Marty resents the church; Angel and Junior, grappling with his sexuality, are the type of people the church ostracizes. DeMichelle describes Tan’s behavior as “weaponizing Jesus” to “correct behavior.” But, Tan transitions to a more accepting attitude, and even apologizes for how her religious zeal has caused harm.
A collision course
Marty and Junior represent two different paths in life—doing everything right and continually getting it wrong. And, those paths inevitably collide, physically and emotionally. Intentional choices were made in production not to depict physical violence, which is oftentimes how Black trauma is portrayed. Instead, the collision is…you’ll have to see the play to find out for yourself. But, “that moment between [Junior] and Marty,” describes actor Aaron Shaw, “alters their relationship for the rest of time.” Shaw said this collision and the aftermath were the hardest part of playing Junior.
Major tension between cousins Marty and Junior comes from how they were raised, and by whom. Marty grows up with Tan who is tough, and even abusive, because of her religious zeal. Junior is raised by Neet, who emphasizes education to get him out of the neighborhood. By the end, it seems Marty and Junior have swapped futures.
Junior has dropped out of school and become a crack addict. Junior was once the studious kid in the library protected by Marty, who is thrown out for fighting Junior’s bullies. Now, Junior is the one being asked to leave the library and Neet wants to keep away from Lil’ Mar because he’s a bad influence. The tables have turned. Marty returns from an 8-year stint in prison, but when he gets out, he tries to reconnect with his son and be a positive influence in his life. He was called a bum by the family in the beginning, but Junior has gradually slid into that role.
The cast emphatically agreed Hands That Could is an “extraordinarily Black” play: a play written by a Black playwright produced by an all-Black crew and two Black theater companies, performed by an all-Black cast in one of Los Angeles’ most important Black neighborhoods. The production process was grueling, with day-long rehearsals six days a week. But the actors said gospel music humming on set, essential oils and teas to help calm and center them fostered a loving family space.
A caring creative space was key because of the play’s nature. “This is a heavy play, but you can’t shy away from it. You have to sit with it,” said Russell. These people’s lives are messy, but being a part of this play “made me resonate with humanity in a different way,” said Joshua R. Lamont, who plays Marty and Junior’s uncle. DeMichelle echoed Lamont: “When we look at people, we should look at the root of their circumstances, not just the result.” She contended, “A drug dealer is a businessman who didn’t have the same opportunities.”
Matthew Elam, who plays the titular Marty, said, “In every role, you have the opportunity to give humanity to somebody.” The people we portray sometimes remind us too much of what we have the capacity to do, things we feel are “past redemption.” “And, when we do,” continued Elam, “it’s like, ‘We don’t want to see that anymore…we throw them to the outskirts.”
“I think a show like this makes you face that reality,” explained Elam. “You have to look that person in the eyes, and not only see them as a person who’s making mistakes, but also see the efforts they’re putting in to create a better world for themselves.”
10950 S Central Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90059 @ Watts Labor Community Action Committee / Phoenix Hall
Get tickets ($20-$35) here. Final shows are May 21 at 2pm and 6pm.
Released from prison on the eve of his 25th birthday, Marty returns home to his family, equipped with a handwritten manuscript and big dreams to turn his life around. But his cousin Junior has also come home with problems of his own, setting them on a collision course as they struggle to break free of the curse that has haunted their family for generations. Can Marty put his hands to good use, or is his fate already written?
Editor’s note: Watts Village Theater Company Artistic Director, Bruce Lemon, is a member of AfroLA’s board of directors. Lemon and no member of WACO, WVTC or other interest representing Marty and the Hands That Could had any editorial involvement in this story.