The Defamation Experience was born from an unsettling personal encounter.
More than a decade ago, I went to a reading of a friend’s play, and joined the cast for drinks afterward. Two of the actors were African-American. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d socialized with an African-American person. At some point, one of the actors regaled us with his impression of riding a horse at a weekend cattle round-up vacation. His impression reminded me of Cleavon Little in the movie Blazing Saddles, but I realized I was too intimidated to tell him that. I was concerned he and others might think I was only making the comparison because he and Little were African-Americans.
As I drove to my home in one of Chicago’s “lily-white” suburbs, I asked myself many painful questions about where I chose to live, clubs I belonged to, and the lack of diversity among my friends and community. I knew I wasn’t unique. Most of us still go to bed at night in cities, communities and neighborhoods that are segregated by race, religion, ethnicity and class. I decided to write a play that would spur self-examination and honest conversation.
The Defamation Experience was first performed as a stage reading at DePaul University for an audience of 12 in May 2009, just a few months into the Obama Administration. It was an interesting time for American race relations, with some declaring our society “post racial” and others cautioning, as does one of the characters in the play, “just because Barack Obama is president, we’re a long way from a level playing field.”
As our experiential programming ventures beyond its 700th presentation, we have entered a disturbing time where race, class, and religious conflicts are even more heightened. We are also confronting a systemic culture of sexism, as countless women – and some men – step forward to recount abuse at the hands of men in positions of power.
Amidst our growing cultural storms, both The Defamation Experience and Just-Cause: The Experience continually reveal to me that there’s plenty of sun to be found.
We’re proud to have launched DefEx Online & Just Cause: The Experience, as well as exploring new formats like Telepresence events, to continue providing this amazing opportunity to stay connected and engage your community in meaningful, lasting conversation. It’s a powerful part of the solution to today’s online educational challenges: providing compelling programming that creates and sustains genuine human connections within your community even while so much of our lives has moved online.
I find humility and humanity at every performance, whether for corporate executives or high school students and regardless age, race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. Audience members quickly acclimate to serving as jurors, and deliberations are always thoughtful and civil. The legal environment the drama creates gives jurors the courage to speak up and instills a sense of courtesy and respect towards others. Most importantly, post-show discussions reveal a national hunger for honest conversation. People want to hear and be heard. They want to heal and be healed.
These experiences have proven to be what I hoped. They are a way to challenge pre-conceived notions. They are a way to start a conversation. They are a testament to the power of civil discourse. They are a bridge to both healing and hearing.
Now as the world faces new uncharted crises like Covid-19, these enlightening conversations are more important than ever. Top of mind is the safety and very survival of the communities you care about most, including families, neighborhoods, schools, and religious and community organizations, all in addition to the work you do each day to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s daunting and disorienting.
That’s why through the power of theater and civil discourse, these shared experiences and resulting conversations continue to deliver meaningful, long-lasting conversations when we need it most. I hope you’ll enter into The Experience and become part of the conversation, too.