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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

Food For the Gods: An exploration on society's treatment of Black men through art

Written by: Sophia da Silva 🇧🇷


Food For the Gods performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. (Lisa Helfert)


Nehprii Amenii was working towards her graduate degree in theater production in 2011 when the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia sparked nationwide protests. One day, as Amenii got off the subway, she walked straight into one of these protests.   


“In essence, Black people, to exist, you gotta either stay in a state of rage or you got to just choose to tune it out to be able to function. So I’d done a pretty good job on mastering the tune out,” said Amenii, “right as I’m getting off the train like everything I was trying to avoid was now walking right down the street at me.”


Amenii found herself sobbing at three in the morning  as she educated herself of the many Black men who have been victimized by the police. The next day a classmate of hers had written a satire on the issue.


“How does it feel to be that free that you can take this in and have so much disconnect that you can write a comedy?” said Amenii.


Food For the Gods came out of that experience as a meditation on racialized violence in the U.S.


Amenii, the  writer, director and co-puppet designer,  brought “Food for the Gods” to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on December 7-9. 


The performance guides the audience through a journey to the afterlife with the stories of several Black men that have suffered racialized violence. Amenii’s goal through this piece is for the audience to have a sense of empathy, understanding and curiosity for the realities of one another.

 

The performance is not a traditional one with the audience sitting comfortably and spectating rather they move through a shifting maze.


“The piece is put upon [the audience] without them realizing that it is beginning the same way these newspaper articles and news videos get put upon us without warning,” said Amenii.


The audience is ushered into the theater by the character of sailor 1 played by ChealseaDee Harrison carrying a lantern and singing.


“Take me down to the water, we’re going to wash our souls clean.”


Upon entrance bodies are strewn about the floor when Harrison breathes life into them. They begin telling the stories of several Black men.


Food For the Gods performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. (Lisa Helfert)


Kalief Browder, Troy Davis, Kenneth Chamberlain, Oscar Grant III, Sean Bell, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till, George Stinney Jr., Frank Embrée.


Their voices layer over one another as they move around the stage assembling sails of sheets and bamboo sticks which become the walls of the maze. 


Throughout the piece actors interact with the audience, moving through them and sustaining intense eye contact. The eye contact is Kymbali Craig’s, who plays the role of Mother, favorite part.


“It’s so upfront,” said Craig, “It’s always different every night and keeps you in front of yourself, on your toes, present, very present. And that’s challenging and exciting and all those things at the same time.”


Amenii uses the character of Mother to reference research done showing the effect of the killings of Black men on the people, specifically Black women, surrounding them. 


“Be it Black or not, that type of trauma doesn't happen in an isolated space,” said Amenii, “As I look back into the stories, the most close family members have also passed away not long after.”


The Mother character explores the internal struggles of a Black woman raising a Black man and preparing him for the world. Her performance brings the audience into the “Interior Mother’s world” said Amenii.


The journey concludes with the audience joining these 12 men at a feast. Each man is depicted by an ensemble member and a sculpted hand and mask in a traditional Japanese style of puppetry called Bunraku.


The use of puppetry initially came out of necessity when she had no fellow Black classmates and had to struggle with depicting Black men without Black actors.


Traditionally in this style of puppetry they are controlled by two to three puppets. Having that many puppeteers was not practical for the amount of characters on stage so Amenii paired it down to the face and hand.


“Which then worked out because we’re talking about the violence on the Black man’s body and so they sit at the dinner table without bodies,” said Amenii.


Amenii calls Food For the Gods a “living work” rather than a play because it requires constant updating. Armenii said every time it’s performed there is a new victim of violence that needs to be added to the story. She finds it greuling to go back and re-work the story every time.


“How do we show the perpetualness of this,” said Amenii.


Food For the Gods performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. (Lisa Helfert)

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