The incident at the heart of the fact-based Erik Ehn play Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 is as trivial as, say, a teenager walking home from a corner store with some Skittles in his hand. The Project X production of this skillfully staged one-act continues through this weekend at The Green Zone in the Dallas Design District.
One May day in 1921, a young shoeshine man, Dick Rowland (played by Walter White), shared an elevator in a downtown Tulsa department store with the young white elevator operator (Jenni Pittman). He bumped her; she screamed. He was arrested for assault. When the Tulsa newspaper ran a page one headline announcing the upcoming lynching of "Diamond Dick" -- a nickname applied by the paper -- a group of concerned African American Tulsa residents gathered to protest and to try to save his life. Whites responded with guns, lots and lots of guns. There were riots, vigilante shootings by whites and an outsized, trigger-happy response by the National Guard, ordered to the area by the Oklahoma governor. Some 300 blacks were killed, including children and women, and thousands more arrested. Black homes, businesses, theaters and churches were burned.
Diamond Dick, directed by Shakespeare Dallas' Raphael Parry, is a highly stylized piece of theater. It uses poetry, factual testimony, live blues and gospel music (played beautifully by Newton Pittman, who also serves as the show's narrator), film and shadowplay. The small black box space at The Green Zone is draped in ropes and fabric, reconfigured in different ways throughout the show. The intimacy makes the tragic events of the story hit even harder.
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The Tulsa Race Riots mark one of America's saddest episodes of violence and bigotry. Ehn's dramatic retelling of it, using the words of those who witnessed it, is part of his 17-play series Soulographie: Our Genocides. The other plays are being staged by companies around the globe, with each depicting a particular human rights atrocity. The entire cycle will be performed in a 24-hour marathon in New York City later this year.
Project X has assembled a solid ensemble for Diamond Dick. Playing multiple characters are Rhonda Boutté (particularly touching in the role of an 8-year-old girl, among others), Dennis Raveneau, Jamal Sterling, Stormi Demerson and Jeffrey Schmidt (who also designed and constructed the simple but visually stunning scenery). Dallas actors Marcus Mauldin, T.A. Taylor, Erik Jenkins and Victoria Meeks are among those seen in the filmed vignettes.
Somehow Diamond Dick telescopes its epic story into a brisk 75 minutes. It's a brief but important reminder of a little-remembered chapter of American history, now revived to teach new lessons in tolerance. Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 continues through April 22 at The Green Zone (161 Riveredge Dr.). Extra weekend performances have been added. Tickets are just $10 at the door or through ProjectXTheatre.com.