Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Brings Trauma of Criminalization to the Stage

By Sameer Rao Oct 19, 2016

Few people know the importance of art to social movements better than Patrisse Cullors. The Black Lives Matter co-founder and performance artist consistently embodies that intersection in both her organizing and creative work.

"Protest is performance art," Cullors told Colorlines during a phone interview. "Art is central to how Black folks heal from trauma and imagine Black futures." She brings this sentiment to the third production of her theater piece, "Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied." It will debut in Seattle tomorrow (October 20) for a three-day run at the city’s historic Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.


Cullors developed "Power" after Mike Brown was killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in 2014. She staged the first production in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she was a resident artist at Kalamazoo College, before moving it to her hometown of Los Angeles. Every production follows a similar formula: up to 12 Black actors perform pieces of up to six minutes long. Each shares "an experience they had with law enforcement, security guards, a vigilante, a TSA officer, or any active punitive action towards them," Cullors explains. The productions all share the same voiceover, based on "We Charge Genocide," the 1951 paper that spelled out the terms of Black oppression for the United Nations. They also all share the same throughline of anti-Blackness and criminalization.

Cullors, who directs the show, specifically stages it to engage with local community and activist organizations. The premiere production jumpstarted Kalamazoo’s Black Lives Matter Chapter, and she created the rest of the script for this month’s production in collaboration with nine Seattle locals. Some of them are thespians, and they will star in "Power." For instance a 13-year-old girl will addresses her first bullying experience, which involved White children and the principal who suspended her.

"We can’t deny someone’s story, we can’t deny someone their experience," Cullors says of the performance format. "It’s [the performers’] words and they perform it in front of an audience of 300 people for three nights—the audience can’t deny that."

"Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied" is presented by Intiman Theatre and co-produced by C. Davida Ingram. Visit the production’s Facebook page to purchase tickets.