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Review: Beautifully Executed ‘The River Speaks of Thirst’ Begs More Questions than Answers

The River Speaks of Thirst, produced by The Justice Theater Project, written by Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green and directed by Kristi V. Johnson, premiered earlier this month. 

Impeccably curated, Johnson elegantly weaves the archetypal imagery of the Black experience to create a rich textile of symbolism and visual language. The images cast against the rivers of North Carolina tell the story of the history of oppression of African American’s past, present, and future. The actors, who express the story beautifully through dramatic movement, music, and poetic expression, bring Jaki Shelton Green’s words to life. All of this to say, watching this film left me with two questions. Who is the audience, and how does this work help serve the Black artist community?

During this year of social unrest, part of the conversation that matriculated within theater spaces for Black artists was a desire to create new frameworks for Black narratives. This piece, however, although beautiful and beautifully executed, misses the mark when it comes to the possibility of expanding that narrative. Images that have circulated within the Black community for generations, reaffirm the emotional wounds of a movement, which leaves me, a Black woman, slightly confused and conflicted. Why this work? And why now? 

Instead of bringing a fresh perspective to Black voices, and even reflecting on that which has changed and evolved within our systems and structures over the past year, The Justice Theater Project chose a piece that reverts back to the deep past of African American stories to offer context as to where we are today. 

For the Black audience, this seems redundant, as we are already well aware of how we got here. If for a white audience, on the other hand, with work so steeply relevant in the codex of Black visual language, would its context even make sense and would there be an understanding as to the call and response to affect social change? Perhaps one of the answers to ground and focus the work to today’s social issues might be to provide a study guide with integrative questions.  

As this theater company’s mission states, it might be time to open the door to more visuals that offer excitement and change of new storytelling and education, as our country is in dire need of such to bring life to a new theatrical experience. But the evolution of this type of work is tricky and requires collaboration, follow-through, and education. Otherwise, it is just another rung missed in the elevation of Black artistry.

The River Speaks of Thirst is available to stream through June. For more information visit http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/.

Watch Lauren Van Hemert’s interview with Kristi V. Johnson (Director) here.

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