Toronto theatre artist Makambe K Simamba recognizes why the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer had such a profound impact on her back in 2012 and 2013.
“The most central reason that it spoke to me was my younger brother, his name is Liayo,” Simamba tells the Straight by phone from Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre rehearsal hall.
By the time the gunning down of Martin had become a monumental international story, spurring the Black Lives Matter movement, Simamba’s brother was about the same age as the Florida teen.
“I really thought deeply about what it would be like if Trayvon was my actual brother,” Simamba says. “The thought terrified me and it broke my heart and it made me so angry and it made me confused.”
The 17-year-old Martin was shot dead after buying a pack of Skittles and a fruit juice at the local 7-Eleven. His killer, neighbourhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, was not arrested at the time even though a police dispatcher had told him not to follow Martin in the upscale gated community in Sanford, Florida. Martin was returning to where his father was living in the compound.
Simamba recalls being about 75 percent sure that Zimmerman would be convicted after he was finally charged, given the evidence, including his 9-1-1 call. But the jury acquitted him.
She says she understands that racialized violence continues to exist, but she was devastated that there was no justice in this situation because it was so obvious what had occurred.
“If this was my brother, how do you deal not only with the fact that he’s gone but the fact that the whole justice system in the society that you’re living in is telling you that it’s okay that that happened?” she asks. “And that the person who did that gets to walk away without consequences?”
The horror remained with her in her body for two years, she says, before she felt ready to write about it. It came when she was doing a three-week intensive program with One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre in Calgary.
Around that time, Simamba went through a difficult breakup. Then she heard the horrible news that a cousin, who was in her late 20s, had died suddenly in a motor-vehicle accident.
“It made me really think about ancestry because she’s a part of my family as well,” Simamba recalls.
That prompted her to think a great deal about her cousin’s spirit entering the afterlife.
“I kind of was in such a devastated place that, creatively, I did not have the energy to stifle my own impulses,” she says.
Those impulses resulted is her one-person play, Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers, which she will perform at the Firehall Arts Centre on the first three evenings of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
Directed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, it tells the story of a murdered Black youth named Slimm who struggles in the afterlife to come to terms with a death that he did not choose.
Research underscores Simamba's performance
Simamba initially wrote a 10-minute solo, but she has since expanded it into a full-length play after doing extensive research.
She visited Sanford so she could feel the world that Martin experienced. She also travelled to Ferguson, Missouri, and stood where an 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown Jr., was shot by a white police officer in 2014.
“I feel a strong connection to those stories and I feel those stories live in our bodies,” she says. “We experience racism in many different ways.”
It’s part of her effort to accurately convey the experiences of Black teenage boys who, she says, have had a profound impact on popular culture even as they remain the “most hunted”.
“The entire piece is quite spiritual,” Simamba says. “I always have this image that I’m walking through ghosts because I think I am.”
Plus, she travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, where so much history of the civil-rights movement is remembered, including the famous bus ride taken by Black icon Rosa Parks in 1955. It took Simamba back to her childhood—that was the first role that she ever played on-stage, as a third-grade student of Zambian ancestry.
“So I got to go to the Rosa Parks Museum and sit behind her statue,” she says. “All of the sudden, I was seven years old again. It brought me so much joy. And it felt like a full-circle moment.”
In addition, Simamba read Rest In Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, which was written by his parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. Simamba marvels at their courage and dedication to doing good work to benefit others in the wake of such an unspeakable loss.
The director of programming at the PuSh festival, Gabrielle Martin, tells the Straight by phone that she feels that Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers is so interesting because it takes a metaphysical perspective on how our society values Black lives.
“It is a necessary work, and Makambe is an incredible, incredible performer,” Martin says. “I think we’re really lucky to see her at work. I think it’s a challenging subject matter that is really handled very masterfully.”
Martin describes the upcoming show at the PuSh festival as a “remount of sorts” because it’s being taken to another level with a video backdrop and dynamic lighting.
“They’ve gone a little bit deeper with the work,” she adds. “I am really excited to see that and have that version premiere here.”
As Simamba was writing Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers, the primary audience, in her mind, was Black youths. While she welcomes people of all backgrounds to the show, she says it was extremely important to her that Slimm tell his story to people his age.
Simamba also emphasizes that at the end of the day, what’s behind the headlines are real people and that these young Black lives truly do matter. After all, Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old kid who had just bought a powder-blue suit for his prom when he was executed because of his race.
“I feel like headlines freeze people in their death,” Simamba says. “I wanted to just remember and humanize this child who did not choose to lead a movement. He was just walking home with candy and a drink.
“That’s what makes the story so heartbreaking,” she continues. “He never chose to be a martyr.”
The performances of Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers have been cancelled at the PuSh festival in Vancouver. In-person performances will resume at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre from March 8 to April 10.