By Ariel Fristoe, Artistic Director, Out of Hand Theater
On August 25, 1000 people will gather in homes, churches and restaurants across Decatur to talk about race. The conversations will take place over dinner, or 100 dinners to be more precise, and every conversation will start with the performance of a short play written just for this event. The play is simple, just one man or one woman talks for maybe 15 minutes, about the experience of being Black in Metro Atlanta today. Then everyone helps themselves to dinner, and sits down at one of 100 dinner tables to talk.
The event is called Decatur Dinners, and it is the brainchild of Out of Hand Theater and One Small Change, long-time hosts of Chicago Dinners, starting the work of racial healing by talking with friends. Last winter, Out of Hand was producing our annual show in homes—last year it was Shaking the Wind by Minka Wiltz—and Dietra Hawkins and Adria Kitchens, the women who run One Small Change, happened to attend a performance at the home of Clare Schexnyder in Decatur. Our shows in homes are preludes to discussion anyway—an one-act performance on a social justice topic with a cocktail party and a community conversation—and after everybody else had left, Minka, Dietra, Adria, Clare and I found ourselves in Clare’s living room, bubbling with excitement, cooking up the plan for Decatur Dinners.
Out of Hand usually produces one show per night, so the idea of hosting 100 dinners on the same night, with 100 performances for a total of 1000 attendees, was daunting, to say the least. But One Small Change had produced multiple dinners on the same night before (without the performance element), and we had Clare. Clare Schexnyder is a fierce lady, a remarkable community organizer. With Clare’s help, we soon brought on board City of Decatur’s Better Together Advisory Board, City Schools of Decatur, and Decatur Housing Authority, an extraordinary feat of community collaboration. Meanwhile, we were meeting every week, working out the format the conversation would take, testing ideas, and developing strategies to get the word out. Dietra and Adria were busily working to recruit 100 conversation facilitators, and to train them for their parts in the event. Minka was writing draft after draft of the play, trying to choose the most effective content and tone to set the stage for these conversations. And we began the work of casting 100 professional Black actors and actresses to perform at the same time on the same night.
We are nearing the finish line—you can sign up today at decaturdinners.com! The event is free, most of the dinners are potluck, and you don’t have to live in Decatur to attend; everyone is welcome. Each dinner will have a host, a conversation facilitator, a performer, and seven or eight guests, for a total of about 10 people at each of 100 dinner tables, 1000 attendees. Dietra and Adria are working diligently to ensure a diverse mix of people at every table, so that every table has a breadth of experiences and viewpoints to share.
Decatur is a special place. I’m tempted to say that this event could not have come together so swiftly or with so much community support in most other cities. But Decatur is not perfect; Decatur struggles with many of the same issues around race that face most, if not all, American communities. Inequities in income, economic mobility, housing, education, health, and criminal justice; microaggressions suffered on a daily basis by people of color. As Gracie Bonds Staples so eloquently quoted in the AJC last Friday, racism is not your fault, but it is your problem. Ms. Staples was writing about the church, but to me, this statement applies to everyone; racism is perhaps the most pressing social problem of our time, it is everybody’s problem. So join us, as we gather in homes and secular spaces and houses of worship of all kinds on August 25 to build bridges, to deepen our understanding, to create allies, buoyed by the empathy-building power of theater and stories, and the communal experience of sharing a meal.
If you’d like to see the play that sparked the idea for Decatur Dinners, Minka will be performing Shaking the Wind one night only at Atlanta Black Theater Festival, and if you’re interested in other dinner conversations on regional issues with strangers, check out Civic Dinners. Sign up for Decatur Dinners at decaturdinners.com!
Ariel Fristoe is the founder and Artistic Director of Out of Hand Theater, where she has been building community and promoting social justice through arts-driven programs since 2001.