BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A Bloomfield playwright has written a play about the 1921 destruction, by white rioters, of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla. Greenwood was the prosperous northern area of Tulsa where the residents were black. Its story is a little-known chapter in American race relations that playwright Cilque Brown has brought to life with a cast including two Essex County residents. Her play is titled “36 Blocks.” It has had a recent performance in NYC with four more NYC performances scheduled. Brown’s first name is pronounced “silky.”
Called “Black Wall Street” during it heyday, Greenwood, which encompassed a 36-block area, was the vibrant community of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and tradesmen. It is said that on Sundays, women wore silk dresses and diamonds while men sported silk shirts and gold chains.
But on the night of May 31, 1921, one day following a rampant allegation that a black teenager had sexually assaulted a white teenage girl in an elevator, white rioters and Ku Klux Klansmen from south Tulsa stormed Greenwood and burned it to the ground. Eyewitness accounts said airplanes, flying overhead, dropped gasoline bombs. Gov. James Robinson declared martial law and National Guardsmen fought fires.
Six thousand people were left homeless and at least 36 people died. In 2001, a Tulsa Race Riot Commission was established to determine the facts.
“It’s definitely a play good for young people to see because it has a lot of history and no profanity,” Brown said during a recent rehearsal. “It’s in fact, a moving play.”
Brown said she had never heard of Greenwood when she was growing up. But in 1993, she was given a book titled “Black Wall Street.” She researched Greenwood and wrote her first version of what would become “36 Blocks.”
“I took all that sorrow and wrote ‘Black Metropolis,’ in 1994,” she said.
“Black Metropolis” was written as a play and produced by Brown.
In 2011, through a cast member of “Black Metropolis,” Brown met Olivia Hooker, a black woman who is said to be the last eyewitness to the riot. Hooker provided Brown with an account of the event. Hooker, 103, is today a retired professor of Fordham University.
“After meeting Dr. Hooker, I wanted to focus on the 36-block area,” Brown said. “Dr. Hooker has a page on Facebook. She was quick to tell me how Klansmen came into her house and broke the records. They broke the Caruso records, but not “The Rugged Cross,” which is a spiritual.”
Brown’s play has a cast of 12. When the curtain goes up, we are in the present with preparations for a parade under way. The parade is to occur during the Memorial Day weekend, only in the play the holiday is called Declaration Day. A young man and an older woman are on stage discussing the significance of the history of the Greenwood district. There is no mention of riots between them. The young man said that whatever Greenwood citizens once had, they lost. He does not seem to know anything about the riots. But the older woman tells him that what the people had was not lost, it was stolen.
“They lost the town,” he said.
“No,” she said. “The people across town stole it from us.”
In the play, the present-day opening is a prologue and the audience is introduced to Greenwood history. The story then goes back to 1921 and follows the timeline of the riot, which occurred over a three-day period.
One member of the cast is West Orange resident Zara Green who plays Christine Jacobs.
“My character came to Greenwood with her family,” Green said. “They are proud citizens. My character helps to organize the Declaration Day parade.”
Green delivered some of her character’s dialogue following the riot.
“I’m not letting nobody kill my dreams,” she says. “Unless they’re planning on bringing down the entire state of Oklahoma, I’m not letting anyone kill my dreams.”
Javon Wallace, of East Orange, plays Jeffrey Barnes, a friend of Dick Rowland, the black teenager alleged to have assaulted the female teenager.
“Jeff also takes pictures,” Wallace said. “And he’s like a little brother to Dick.”
Wallace delivered a line from his character’s dialogue. The line proves prophetic.
“Sometimes you don’t got to say anything,” he said. “They come straight at you.”
In the play, this line is delivered in response to Dick Rowland’s boast that he’s safe working in the south Tulsa, the white part of town, because he stays to himself.
Brown said it was important for her actors — it is an all-black cast — to come away with a sense of history.
Green said the story of Greenwood was relevant because of the racial stirrings in politics today.
“It’s not just as story for black people,” she said. “It’s a story that will level the playing field. The leveling is the lie that black people are less than, or inferior to, white people. The resilience of black people is the importance of this story.”
Wallace had his thoughts, too.
“This role and the story is probably the most important acting I’ve done,” he said. “When I was in middle school and high school, I wasn’t taught about this. It’s important for the generation coming up behind me should know about the culture. When I was in school, none of this was taught. And you wonder what other stories we don’t know.”
“36 Blocks” will be given four performances at two NYC venues: Saturday, March 10, 4 p.m., the Episcopal Actors Guild, 1 E. 29th St.; Saturday, March 24, 7 p.m, the Matthew Corozine Studio Theater, 357 W. 36th St.; Saturday, March 31, 6 p.m., the Episcopal Actors Guild; and Saturday, April 7, 7 p.m., the Matthew Corozine Studio Theater. An admission fee will be charged. For ticket information: www.brownpapertickets.com.