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World Premiere of ‘Peace of Clay’ Calls Audiences In

“Everybody wants somebody
To be their own piece of clay.”

– Marvin Gaye

In 1972, Marvin Gaye recorded the song Piece of Clay. Though not released until over 20 years later, Gaye’s ballad is a self-reflective meditation working through his own personal trauma.

Similarly, Mike Wiley and Howard L. Craft’s new play Peace of Clay, which is having its world premiere at Theatre Raleigh, is a meditation on Black life in urban America and the mythos of a dream promised but bound by systems of oppression.

Set in a fictitious working-class town in North Carolina, Peace of Clay is a snapshot of project life in the 1980s. On the surface, it is about a high school student, Clay, who aspires to become a filmmaker and get out of the hood. But look beneath the surface, and there is much more here than meets the eye. Indeed, there is a universality that speaks to a lived experience.

“The scenery, the sounds, the talk, even down to the walk, would take any Black person over the age of 40 back to the early years of rap, the early addictions of crack, and to the pre-gentrification days of Black neighborhoods,” says Beltline to Broadway’s Juan Isler.

“What is cliché about this play is it tells the story of poverty and trying to overcome it,” he adds. “What is different with this work is it’s not a sob story about how depressing the ghetto experience is.”

Isler says on opening night, there was an electricity in the air that was palpable, a collective consciousness that a predominantly white audience simply wouldn’t nor couldn’t understand. Why? Because unlike many Black plays commissioned and produced by predominantly white theaters, this play was not written for a white majority.

And that is what in fact distinguishes this piece from other Wiley/Craft history plays audiences may be more familiar with. This play feels far more personal.

From its dialogue to the insightful way in which Director Aurelia Belfield approaches the work, to the way in which the performers manifest the nuance of these characters, this play invites its audience in, an audience who doesn’t typically see their stories represented onstage outside of the slave narrative. The question then becomes, have theaters created a welcoming enough environment for Black audiences to even want to venture into this space?

Historically, the answer is, no. But perhaps in the wake of the reckoning American theater has experienced over the past year, producing plays like this one will set a precedent and chip away at the distrust between Black artists and audiences and white decision-makers.     

None of this is to preclude white audiences from seeing Peace of Clay. In fact, white audiences need to purchase tickets and fill the seats to perpetuate the development of more of this kind of work. White audiences may not get it, but that is not the point.

The point is that this is an exercise in finding the beauty in other people’s stories, an opportunity to practice compassion and even explore the revelatory why behind what. That is in fact what will begin to bridge the divides, create more welcoming spaces, and in turn, make the world a better place.

We all talk about kindness
But it’s only a word (truly)

Brother turned on a sister
In this cruel, cruel world
That’s what’s wrong
With all in this world today.

Everybody wants somebody
To be their own piece of clay
Everybody wants somebody
To be their own piece of clay
.”

Marvin Gaye

Peace of Clay’ runs through October 3 at the Theatre Raleigh Arts Center. For more information visit https://theatreraleigh.com/.

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