New College performance season kicks off with The (M)others

From left, Taylor Bond as Sharon Watkins, Jasmine Eileen Cole as Kimberly Phillips, Queen Mecca Zabriskie as Dionne Smith Downs, Marcella Berra as Laurie Valdez.

The New College Theater, Dance and Performance Studies program debuted their first show of the season The (M)others on September 17. Written by Nikki Yeboah, “(M)others” is an oral history performance woven from interviews with four mothers of men executed by the police: Kimberly Phillips (Aaron James Phillips), Laurie Valdez (Antonio Lopez), Sharon Watkins (Phillip Watkins) and Dionne Smith-Downs (James Rivera Jr.), played by New College Professor of Sociology Queen Mecca Zabriskie. This performance is produced in collaboration with San Jose University and takes place live over Zoom, free and open to the public. 

The four mothers are placed in conversation with each other, and the virtual audience: in addition to audience engagement at the beginning of the show, the cast, crew, and real-life mothers joined the call for a Q&A session after its conclusion. Hearing from the mothers demonstrated how masterfully Yeboah and the cast rendered their voices, their heights of joy and depths of pain. There was much laughter in the performance and interview, tempered by unspeakable grief. Even over Zoom, the show didn’t feel voyeuristic and impersonal, like much of the engagement with police brutality to be found on a screen. It felt like an invitation to something sacred. The viewer is invited not to watch, but witness. 

“It was really hard to see this again,” Kimberly Phillips said. “When you’ve lived through something like that, and you’re witness to something like that, there’s nowhere else to put it. It’s always with you. So you try to find a way to survive. You have to constantly try to find ways to survive, because this world will beat you down if you let it. The system will beat you down if you let it, that’s for damn sure. So watching this brought back that memory, and I was in tears… but these stories need to be told. And I love the fact that this humanizes our loved ones and tells that true story, and you know what? There’s power in truth.” 

When asked what they hope audiences will take away from the performance, the mothers shared a common refrain: in the United States, police brutality is not a sensational, anomalous tragedy, but a poison in the very air we breathe; it happens all the time, all around us, in our own communities. We must not look away from it. 

“Our stories were the unheard stories,” Laurie Valdez said. “They didn’t make the media pay attention. In every single city, there are those unheard stories. And you need to be aware that if you want to help us make a change, you have to support those people that are in your own backyard, because I guarantee there are lives stolen in your own backyard that you’ve never heard of. Don’t just go for the temporary rage when there’s a big high profile case. This is happening every day. Get to know the names. Know the stories of the people in your own city.”

The (M)others will be shown September 18, 25, and 27. Get free virtual tickets here.

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