A quest for activism across three generations in Horizon's 'Square Blues'
Activism brings to mind many images: silent protestors sitting in at a whites-only restaurant demanding equal rights, high school students leading a movement for gun control, running for Congress to overhaul discriminatory policies.
The new play “Square Blues,” having its world premiere at Horizon Theatre, follows three generations of a Southern Black family, each with its own approach to activism. The playwright Shay Youngblood and director Tom Jones joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the play.
On confrontations with racism that inspired “Square Blues:”
“I was in graduate school at Brown University. I was sitting on the train, looking around. I picked up a copy of the New York Times that someone had abandoned. This was in 1992,” recounted Youngblood. “I looked at several articles, and I was just astounded by the racism that I saw in several of those articles. I looked around me on the train to see if anyone had read these articles and were just as outraged as I was. In that moment, I created the character ‘Square Blues,’ a man who has been living with racism, oppression, dealing with all kinds of obstacles in his life because of his race, and what is he gonna do about it? He’s angry, but what is he gonna do about it?”
“It was my thesis play,” Youngblood explained. “There is a family of activists. So the daughter, she is protesting everything. She’s very young, and she is out in the streets protesting, but then the fight gets very personal for her. Her father is all about reparations, and he’s not necessarily just wanting a check. He wants radical change… The grandmother, Blue’s mother, she was married to a Jewish man, actually sort of ‘underground married’ to him because it was illegal at that time, and it was illegal for Blacks and whites to marry until 1967. So this family comes together to figure out how can they support each other in their different generations of activism.”
A quest for justice echoing across generations:
“I think it really is an ensemble piece, and I think what she’s done really, really very poignantly and wonderfully well is to not put the piece on the shoulders of anyone because it really is about those three generations of activists,” said Jones.
He later added, “Once you peel back the layers, each generation really does take on the same strategy, the same methodology – whether it’s sit-in, whether it’s protest, whether it’s civil disobedience – because what each generation is doing is flying in the face of laws that are unjust… From one generation to the next, I think that’s what’s so beautifully poignant about the piece is that each generation, though they think they’re different, begins to find that nexus; that, in fact, they do, at the point when things are most critical, at the point when you are most challenged… begin to resemble and resort to the same kind of strategies and tactics.”
How resistance actions look different in the rearview mirror:
“What people did in Birmingham, what people did in Selman, what people did in Atlanta, what people did in Mississippi, in trying to uncover what that injustice looked like, was also extreme in its own time,” said Jones. “The convenience of time makes it look as if it was much more tame than it was. When you sick fire hoses on people and German shepherd dogs, and when you’re blowing up churches on 16th street in Birmingham, that’s an extreme response to trying to change the country. So you jettison 20, 30 years later to 1992 in Karma’s generation, trying to bring awareness and AIDS awareness to her community, it looks extreme. And yet now through the lens of 2022, we look back and say, ‘Perhaps it wasn’t as extreme,’ as we begin to look at what the uprisings are in response to George Floyd.”
Jones added, “Each generation looks probably more extreme in its activism, and yet at its… core, it really is strategically the same thing. Nostalgia and memory has a way of coloring things in a way that you don’t get what the immediate impact [was] in its time.”
“Square Blues” is on stage at Horizon Theatre through Aug. 21. Tickets and more information are available at www.horizontheatre.com/plays/square-blues/.