‘Serial Black Face’ revisits Atlanta child murders

A new play set against the backdrop of one of the most tragic and controversial times in Atlanta’s history will have its world premiere at Actor’s Express this April.

Playwright Janine Nabers’ “Serial Black Face” tells the story of a mother facing the disappearance of her son in the early days of the Atlanta child murders, when the killing of at least 28 African-American children, adolescents and young adults terrorized the city between 1979 and 1981.

“I do think that history repeats itself in a lot of ways,” says Nabers whose play won the prestigious Yale Drama Series competition in 2014. Commissioned by New York’s Playwrights Horizons, the play has had several readings, but Actor’s Express will present the work’s first full production.

“When you look at black communities right now — when you look at what’s happening in Flint, when you look at Black Lives Matter, or even Katrina — a lot of them are frustrated, a lot of them are dying, and they’re trying to rally together,” said Nabers. “We have so much more than we did in 1979. But we have to stand together and acknowledge that we come from really hard pasts. What happened in that time period in America was very tragic and it was overlooked. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and there was a lot of uneasiness about it.”

For two years, the murders gripped the city with fear and hysteria, throwing into sharp relief the city’s racial tensions and urban poverty. Police eventually arrested then 23-year-old suspect Wayne Williams, and he was convicted of two of the adult murders and implicated in others. Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment although he maintains his own innocence, and many feel there are still unanswered questions about the murders and Williams’ case.

The new play doesn’t deal with the arrest or the question of Williams’ guilt, but focuses instead on one mother living in the Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville, where some of the victims were from.

The play centers on Vivian (played by Tinashe Kajese), whose 11-year-old son, Sammy, has gone missing. Although his body hasn’t been found, he’s presumed to be one of the victims in the serial murders. The play focuses on Vivian’s attempts to hold herself together and to maintain her relationship with her rebellious daughter, Latoya (Imani Guy Duckette). Vivian is also comforted by Hugh (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a handsome and mysterious new man she allows into her life at a difficult time.

Nabers says she first heard of the Atlanta Child Murders in 2010 when she happened to see something about it online and clicked on a link.

“I was so startled, I had no idea that it had happened,” she says. “The well of it opened. It was this huge imaginative gate for me. When you have something like that in front of you, your imagination goes to so many places. For a very long time, I kept reading these stories and seeing these black mothers and thinking: What was it like being a black woman at that time, living in the projects and not necessarily having that father figure in your life? What would that story look like?”

Nabers researched the murders for a year and a half before she began writing the play. She also interviewed family members and others who lived in Atlanta and the South to get a sense of what that time was like for those who lived through it. She was intrigued to contemplate the difficult realization within the black community that the killer was likely black himself.

“At that time period it was hard for people to imagine that there was a serial killer with a black face,” she says. “It didn’t seem fathomable.”

Nabers, who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, grew up in Houston. She was initially drawn to the theater as an actress but turned to playwriting out of frustration with the lack of roles available to her.

“There were just so many roles that weren’t around for me to play,” she says. “I remember reading Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller and wanting to play these roles and people telling me ‘That can’t happen.’ What drew me to ‘Serial Black Face,’ and the thing that I’m the most proud of with this play, is the fact that it’s a vehicle for a woman. I feel like theater is missing so many stories from a black experience. When people look at tragedy like Medea or anything else, they see white people in those roles. I was very much determined to write a tragedy from a black woman’s perspective.”

Nabers is a graduate of the Juilliard School of playwriting, and during the time she studied there, her play “Annie Bosh is Missing” was selected as a finalist for the 2012-13 Alliance/Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, which brought her to Atlanta for a reading. Celise Kalke, the Alliance’s director of new projects, recommended that Freddie Ashley, the artistic director of Actor’s Express, have a look at “Serial Black Face.”

“I just fell in love with it at the first read,” recalled Ashley, who directs the production. “I loved that at its core it’s a really moving story about a mother and daughter, and it’s set against this really significant time in our city’s history that is almost never talked about anymore.

“I don’t know of any other play that’s ever dealt with the Atlanta child murders. I loved the way she captured a sense of what it must have been like at that time … This is a part of our history that we should talk about and should try to understand. This is a chance to talk about those things and confront them. That’s why I think the play is important to see, even if it might be tough for some.”

Nabers says she’s thrilled to see the play have its world premiere in Atlanta. “The audience in Atlanta is very friendly and warm and accepting,” she says. “There’s no agenda but to see a story in front of them. To be accepted by the community and to have this story told from my voice to their ears, I feel really humbled and just so excited and grateful that it’s happening.”

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