Making a New Land

Issue Six: This Land Was Made
Eisa Davis
June 16, 2023
Eisa Davis

Eisa Davis is a writer, composer, and performer. A recipient of a USA Artists Fellowship, Creative Capital Award, an Obie for Sustained Excellence in Performance and the Herb Alpert Award in Theater, Eisa was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Bulrusher, and wrote and starred in the stage memoir Angela’s Mixtape. Other works include Paper Armor, Umkovu, Hip Hop Anansi, Six Minutes, The History Of Light (Barrymore nomination), Warriors Don’t Cry, Ramp (Ruby Prize), ||: Girls :||: Chance:||: Music :||:, The Essentialisn’t, and Mushroom. A multivolume series of her plays is soon to be published by 53rd State Press. Eisa led the 2021 black femme celebration of Kathleen Collins’ work AFROFEMONONOMY // WORK THE ROOTS, has recorded two albums of her original music, Something Else and Tinctures, and has enjoyed a multi-decade career as a performer on stage and screen. Current projects for the stage include the libretto for an opera adaptation of Bulrusher, and the music and lyrics for Devil In A Blue Dress. Highlights of her television work are both seasons of Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It series, and Justified: City Primeval (summer 2023). An alumna of New Dramatists, Eisa has received residencies, awards and fellowships from the Hermitage Artist Retreat, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Helen Merrill Foundation, the Van Lier and Mellon Foundations, New Dramatists, and Cave Canem. Eisa was born and raised in the Bay Area and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

I was “born of the blood of the struggle”, according to my mother’s inscription on one of my first baby photos. I was a red diaper baby, a child of activists at the vanguard of intersecting movements for the liberation of oppressed peoples. My mother’s and her sister’s identities were forged in their birthplace of Birmingham, Alabama, a crucible of what came to be known as the civil rights movement—and their journey of becoming warriors for justice and freedom eventually brought them to the hotbed of Black Power: Oakland, California. You can actually trace how the movement itself evolved by mapping their individual shifts in consciousness and chosen tactics. And you still can—they have not abandoned the path. Their lives are paragons of self-determination, in that their work is what their spirits desire and require, but they’ve also had no choice but to accept their calling to fight injustice in all its relentlessness.

Julian Elijah Martinez, Leland Fowler, and Ezra Knight in This Land Was Made. Credit: Carol Rosegg.

I speak of my elders first because when I see a play like Tori Sampson’s This Land Was Made, I am there with her characters in 1967, before I was born, through my family when they heard that Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was shot and accused of shooting two officers himself, charges he was later acquitted of. And when I see the play, I am also here now in 2023, not only because the griot character of Sassy (embodied by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) invokes this present, but because I’m a playwright who closely watches how stories of the movement are approached, imagined, told and retold—not only to see if it aligns with my understanding of this time through my family’s stories, my own research, politics and aesthetic, but also to see how other artistic perspectives continue to alter this understanding. 

Tori is a dynamo, someone I first met in 2016 when she organized an event to bring together members of the Black cohort of the Yale Drama School with the cast of Carrie Mae Weems’ contemplation of racial violence, Grace Notes, a show I was performing in on campus. Why the gathering? Just so we could talk. Get to know each other. So we could connect, build community. That same impulse for community building is embedded in her current New York premiere, one she began in 2015 as a playwriting student taught by the legendary Paula Vogel. (The show was slated for a 2020 production at the Vineyard Theatre that never happened, but the theater kept their word to put it up after the pandemic. It’s worth noting as that didn’t happen for all canceled work throughout the industry.) Tori lionizes the Panthers not only because of her mother’s gleeful childhood experiences with them, but because of how influential their style of community building has been for movements in this country and across the globe. When we spoke, she told me that the play’s setup is designed to portray the force of this impact.

“There are these normal people in a bar and Huey Newton walks in and he changes the trajectory of their lives forever. Sort of like the way the Black Panthers changed the path of history forever,” Tori says. “It changed the identity of Oakland, it changed the identity of your family,” she adds, perhaps not aware of how on point she is.

My aunt Angela Y. Davis felt compelled to leave her graduate studies in Germany and return to the States explicitly because of the emergence of the Panthers. While the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party USA was her ultimate affiliation, she saw what the Panthers inspired and were able to accomplish, and knew she had to contribute directly to that work, briefly becoming a Panther herself.

Julian Elijah Martinez in This Land Was Made. Credit: Carol Rosegg

If there’s a theme that runs throughout accounts of liberation movements of the late 60s and early 70s, including my aunt’s autobiography, it’s that violent clashes with the state, disputes between political organizations, even conflict inside a single organization, were all consistently and purposefully obscured. The state would alter, invent or omit the facts of an incident to cover its own perpetration of violence, or would get others to act on its behalf, authoring internal strife via the FBI and CIA’s joint, illegal COINTELPRO program. It’s hard to tell who did what and why when destabilizing the structural integrity of radical groups with infiltrators and false intel was a governmental priority. A group like the Panthers would see one of its most visionary leaders, Fred Hampton, assassinated, due to the actions of an FBI-sponsored informant. And the official story of the incident that put Huey Newton behind bars has so many holes even an appeals court couldn’t believe it, overturning his initial conviction. But there is no question that three people were shot that night—Panther Minister of Defense Newton, Officer Frey, and Officer Heanes—and for Tori, the mystery of how that happened cries out for dramatization. 

She understands this narrative can’t simply be the radicals versus the cops. It’s always more complicated, as recent narratives like Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Universes’ Party People, and Stanley Nelson’s Black Panther documentary attest. As Tori rewrote the script for the Vineyard, she focused even more on revealing a spectrum of Black political stances in their everyday context, underscoring the way divergent opinions all coexist in one community, one bar, one family. Troy (played by Matthew Griffin), the Black conservative student Tori conjures up as the x-factor in her version of the events, is the one who commits the crimes Huey is held accountable for. Suffering from PTSD after a beating at the hands of white classmates, a beating in which he did not fight back, Troy’s body needs to heal the physical memory in a do-over where it can witness itself valuing rather than sacrificing its own health and survival. “Who gets to defend themselves?” Tori asks, when she explains the play’s origins to me. “When I started writing in 2015, I was really interested in all this language that seemed to be very popular—this is the rise of BLM, this is Mike Brown, this is Trayvon Martin…these [white] ideas of ‘I just want to get home safely, I was trying to protect myself, they felt like a threat, they felt dangerous….’ There was all this language aimed at the existence of Black people toward white authority. And so I thought what if that language was put in the mouth of a Black man who is just trying to get home safely.” 

More complexity, more blur. A Black conservative who reflexively revenges himself on white power; acts out what conservatives like him think of radicals; leans on his love, a moderate “flower child” in Tori’s words, for emotional succor, receiving her attraction and physical comforts but losing her heart—and who seems, by the end of the play, to have lost his place in the world. Huey and Gene McKinney, a Panther brother also in the car that night (played by Curtis Morlaye), have on the other hand become more grounded in themselves. Troy is not technically an informant or an infiltrator, but he is buying into the American Nightmare as a benevolent goal. He wants to take off his black skin and give it back to God “just like a coat,” he says. The self-hatred he bears and the hope he has for himself to work inside the system designed for his defeat feel like proof of how he’s been compromised. He doesn’t need an FBI paycheck to do damage because he’s already absorbed a self-destructive ideology.

Libya V. Pugh, Leland Fowler, Julian Elijah Martinez, and Ezra Knight in This Land Was Made. Credit: Carol Rosegg

So what really happened on the night of October 28, 1967, between Huey and the police? While a few different versions of what may have happened play out on the stage—a deft move that allows Tori to signal to the audience that the version she imagines is simply one possibility, not The Reality—it soon becomes clear what Troy has done. Tori and director Taylor Reynolds ensure we feel that blowback through the tremor maintained in Troy’s physicality. Huey’s refusal to snitch him out, daring Troy to come forward, which Troy does not do, makes Troy feel infinitely less control than the arrogant version he desperately clings to at the outset of the play’s action. The whodunit may be the candy drawing people to see the play, but once she’s lured you, Tori buries that lede, refusing to provide the definitive solve to the real-life mystery. The point, she seems to be saying, is not finding out who did what. The point is what did this seemingly predestined violent encounter do to Huey? To his image and the image of the Panthers? What did it do to the mystery person in Huey’s car—who might be a shooter—when the police pulled them over? What did this event, the spectacle and lack of certainty around it do to all of us? What does it continue to do?

It's clear what happened to the world. The call to Free Huey galvanized Black Power in a way no one could have foreseen. And it marshaled the forces of opposition as well. Panther Bobby Hutton is killed by police two days after MLK is assassinated in April 1968, Bobby Kennedy two months later. The LGBTQ movement, decades strong in its mecca of the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, reaches new levels of defiance at Stonewall in 1969. The American Indian Movement takes over Alcatraz Island later that year. Just three days after Huey is freed, my aunt Angela is forced to go underground when she is unjustly targeted for the deaths of a judge and others at the Marin County Courthouse. After being apprehended and spending more than a year and a half in jail and on trial—she is also freed, due to the lack of evidence and the international campaign demanding her release. The Panthers maintain their cross-movement solidarity, first popularized by Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, and typified by the Panthers bringing food to disability rights protesters occupying a federal building in San Francisco in 1977. The Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program for Children morphs into the government-supported Head Start family care program we still benefit from today. Old visions are shattered, new visions are born. And people keep on being people, plain old people, making love and families, trying to get better pay, buying groceries and going to the doctor, growing, changing, learning, or never learning. Making everyday decisions that lead to more justice in the world, or less, or leave things just as they are.

Yasha Jackson, Leland Fowler, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Matthew Griffin, Ezra Knight, and Libya V. Pugh in This Land Was Made. Credit: Carol Rosegg

Coming out of the performance of Tori’s play, I found myself with more questions asked than answered. I know the history, and had learned a bit more about a crucial incident than I knew before—but I still felt an ache of loss, where I wanted to know the characters more deeply to imagine their futures. Tori’s goals may be different, however. When I asked her how she sees this play located within her body of work, or her “portfolio” as she calls it, she said that she thinks about This Land Was Made “as the play where I learned the most about the container of theater.”

“At school, you get to sort of swing for the fences. You’re encouraged to fail. With this play I was exploring time and space, exploring the role of the chorus / griot in theater, direct address, ensemble pieces, a well-made play, history, magical realism—I was just learning about all these things at the same time. I was learning what the mechanics of theater were, and how much it could hold, and how much of myself I could put into my pieces, and how many questions I was allowed to ask, and how many forms was I allowed to break.”

In these assignments she gave herself, she combined her background in sociology and her desire to work with as many Black student actors as she could with the content of a book that haunted her: one on the Huey Newton case she’d stumbled across at a library in Brookline, Massachusetts. She delved into research, interviewing Panthers like Kathleen Cleaver, former wife of Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver, and Ed Bullins (the award-winning playwright of In The Wine Time who passed in 2021). Tori also discovered a self-incriminating conversation about the shooting amongst police officers, where they refer to Newton and McKinney as “victims”—then quickly correct themselves, calling them “perpetrators.” The research was convincing and detailed enough to spur the family of Huey Newton as well as Panther leader Elaine Brown to remark, after a workshop production at the Oakland Theater Project, that this was the best portrayal of Huey they’d seen. That’s no small feat. And it’s wonderful to be in the presence of Huey’s bravado, vividly captured in the New York production by Julian Elijah Martinez (known for playing Mitchell “Divine” Diggs on Hulu’s Wu-Tang Clan series). It’s an accomplishment to get Huey’s unique Louisiana-by-way-of-Oakland accent—and he does it, in conversation and in oration. The outer layer is there—and where are his inner workings? Or is Tori pointing to how Huey refused to articulate those inner workings so he could create a bulletproof persona, one that would outlast his life and make him the immortal hero he declared himself to be in his last words? “You can kill my body,” Newton said before being shot in the face in 1989, “and you can take my life, but you can never kill my soul. My soul will live forever!”

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in This Land Was Made. Credit: Carol Rosegg

He didn’t lie. And he could also be talking about the endless ripple effect of the Bay Area, which, as Sassy the griot says in the play, “has always been the heart of radical movements / redefining what it means to be an American.” I was born of the blood of struggle. Went to Berkeley High and hung with Huey’s niece Tracey. Berkeley High is also where Huey’s Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale went to school—and he’s still making the food that was a brilliant organizing and fundraising tactic to create “unity in the Black community,” formulating barbecue baste marinades you can now buy on Amazon. By the way, Bobby claims Huey did shoot Officer Frey—after Officer Heanes did. 

Time rolls on. There’s a ticking sound used as an effect in the play, evoking the inside of Troy’s mind after the shooting. It doesn’t feel like the pressure of too little time, but the experience of endless time, of waiting, of how unbearable it feels when you don’t have agency. My mother and aunt still live near Merritt College, where Bobby and Huey first met and brought the Black Panthers into being. While one of these four is not alive in body, they all dedicated themselves to creating agency for Black people, poor people, and, in my family’s case, those identified as women. And as a writer deeply engaged in the multiverse that is Blackness, Tori creates agency for us, for her characters, and for herself by celebrating both our fatal weaknesses and our most dazzling strengths. She’s not wasting the time that ticks. She’s swinging for the fences, giving herself the breadth and freedom of comedy to attend to serious drama. As one of her characters, Mr. Far, says about some cigars he’s been saving: 

Feel like I been waiting for something good to happen round here to celebrate.

But soon as I

set my sights on that good thing,

It eludes me.

So I said, Far, just light the damn things.

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