January 10, 2008 — Second-year University of Virginia student Brittani Wade grew up in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Violence was commonplace. She saw people shot on the streets and witnessed others’ detached reactions to it. The experience shaped Wade and inspired her to write a play, "Whoopin' Momma and Dookie Braids," which U.Va.’s Paul Robeson Players performed in November.
The play follows six African-American kids growing up in one of the worst parts of Chicago. The six friends, even in fourth grade, were beginning to deal with serious issues.
The show "deals with a lot of issues in the black culture," said director Sasheer Moore, a third-year U.Va. student. "Drug use and selling drugs, illegitimate children, violence. It hits a lot of different things in a very short amount of time. … It's not exactly a happy show, but it makes you think. There are some communities in America that are very much stuck in a rut, and this was to help make people more aware of that."
In each scene, as the characters grow up, another of the six friends dies. One is shot after a robbery, one dies from a drug addiction, and so forth until each falls from a different affliction. The show ends with a slightly changed first scene, implying that things could have been different for them if they had taken care of one another.
Running throughout the play are several nursery rhyme games, from "Hickory Dickory Dock" to "Whoopin' Momma," a game like freeze tag, except that when you're caught, you get lightly beaten with a belt, as if you had been caught misbehaving by your Momma. Wade remembers the game as one she actually played, and that memory is now disturbing to her.
"Why are we playing games like this? Why can't we play 'Huggin' Momma'? If we're disrespecting each other when we're little, how are we supposed to look out for our fellow man?" she asked.
Moore is also co-president of the Paul Robeson Players, a student run organization, and is very excited about the group. "We're U.Va.'s African-American theater company. The group was revived my first year, and I was a member. We didn't do a whole lot for the past few years, but now this year is kind of a second revival.
"It's for African Americans, but anybody can be in [the group]. Our focus … is to exhibit African-American talent [in plays written] by African-American writers, for African-American audiences. Anyone can enjoy it."
The group currently has about 12 members, with more becoming involved all the time.
"What we're doing now is fostering the group. It's still young, so I'm recruiting new members, advertising and meeting with the group every other week," Moore said.
Despite its up-and-down status at U.Va., the troupe boasts some famous alumni, including Sean Patrick Thomas, who has appeared in a number of television shows and films, including "Save the Last Dance." Thomas has credited the Paul Robeson Players with helping him decide to be an actor.
Moore had a chance to talk with Thomas when he was in Charlottesville for the recent Virginia Film Festival. "Hopefully some of us can go and be the stars who get to come back to talk to people," she said.
The play's two performances, given Nov. 9 and 10, were well-received by the audience at the Student Activities Building. During a recent interview with Moore, many passers-by interrupted to congratulate her on the play, each speaking very highly of it — much to her delight.
"One of our goals is getting more African Americans interested in theater," she said. "It was amazing to me to see how many black students were in the crowd. This season, our show was the only African-American show in Charlottesville. Ideally, you want to go anywhere and be able to see someone on stage that looks like you. … Hopefully, we'll get more members now that people know we're serious."
The players hope to put on one show per semester each year. For the next show, the group is holding a playwriting contest, open to any playwright interested. Scripts are due just before classes start in January, and the winning show will be performed in March.
— By David Pierce