A ‘Love Balm’ for Mothers Who’ve Watched Too Many Sons Die

A Bay Area theater project featuring the testimony of Oscar Grant's grandmother seeks to make emotional sense of incomprehensible violence.

By Julianne Hing Nov 20, 2012

A woman, somewhere, gave birth to each of the people killed in Oakland’s 109 homicides this year. And after the news cameras go away, and the protests die down, and the courtroom dramas wrap up–in the rare instance a killer is tried at all–those women are often left behind. They walk among us with lives forever reshaped by the violent taking of their children. "Love Balm for My Spirit Child," a new play which debuted last week at Oakland’s Eastside Arts Alliance, explores that changed, wrenching existence.

In 60 minutes of tightly written, vivid theater, five actors share the testimonies of six Bay Area mothers who lost their sons and grandsons to police and community violence. "Love Balm" raises elemental questions about society, and the wholesale casting away of the lives of black and brown males. What does white supremacy and a societal fear of black men, enacted through the nation’s history in the form of state-sanctioned police brutality and mass incarceration, look like to the mothers of just a handful of those men? How does a mother raise and love and lose a boy whose life society has deemed dispensable? And what does it mean to be, as the play says, "just ordinary women who dared to bring babies into the world?"

But the play’s artistic director Arielle Brown says the project also seeks to answer a far simpler question: "How do we move through all that and continue to live and see our children in the sun?"

"Love Balm" features the testimonies of six mothers. They include Bonnie Johnson, the grandmother of Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year’s Eve 2009 by a BART transit officer, and Ayanna Davis, whose 25-year-old son Khatari Gant was killed in August 2007. Yasmin Flores, the mother of Daniel Booker, a 27-year-old shot in 2009 as he was walking out of a club, also told her story for the play. As did Anita Wills, whose grandson Kerry Baxter, Jr., was killed while he stood outside an Oakland church last January and Denika Chatman, the mother of 19-year-old Kenneth Harding Jr., who was killed by San Francisco police as he fled a bus stop. Just six mothers, and enough grief to fill lifetimes.

"My son got no medical exam, no report when he died," are Chatman’s words, brought to life in the play. Her son was sprayed with nine bullets while fleeing police who pulled him aside for skipping a $2 bus fare in 2011. He ran, and shot once while fleeing. "When you’re born, you get one, and when you die you’re supposed to get one, but he never got one, so it’s almost as if he’s still here."

In one scene, actor Anna Maria Luera voices the words of Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo, as she indicts the news media portrayal of her son after he was killed by the New York Police Department. "Don’t you dare charge my son as ‘unarmed,’ " Luera says. "You wouldn’t call the bank teller, ‘the unarmed bank teller.’ Someone like that you’d have to think about. My son was not only unarmed, he was going somewhere. Somewhere far, but coming home." 

"We’re not working to sensationalize the testimonies of these women," says artistic director Brown. "We’re not working to stretch the truth or change it or even make these young men into angels or perfect men." By resisting the deification of grieving mothers and their murdered sons, Brown offers viewers a rare gift: a chance to see these men and their mothers in a way they’ve been denied by the media and society at large–as utterly human, with full lives, faults and glories.

The play’s production was made possible by community support through a successful IndieGoGo campaign and a grant from Theater Bay Area. After the play’s run at Eastside Arts Alliance, Brown is taking the play to juvenile detention centers next. The hope is that by starting a conversation with young people behind bars, the project will reawaken in young people a sense of their own humanity. Brown, who has led theater workshops in juvenile detention centers, said she’s been struck by how many young people walk around with RIP tattoos. Perpetrators and victims alike have all been marked by the endemic violence. 

In four of the last five years, Oakland has logged more than 100 homicides every year. That’s meant an average of one murder every three days this year (PDF). In 2011, 100 of the city’s 110 homicide victims was black or Latino. 

Indeed, every homicide ends more than just one life. Brenda Grisham, the mother of Christopher LaVell Jones, seems to live for both herself and her son since his death. Jones was killed on her front porch on New Year’s Eve 2011 when the 17-year-old was hit by an errant bullet from a gunfight down the street as the family headed out to evening church services. Since burying her son, Grisham has thrown herself into loving her community as much as Christopher did. "I’m just so happy to be his mama," Grisham told Colorlines. "Christopher was the person who held everybody together." She celebrates his birthday with the community now, by throwing a block party and giving out school supplies for kids in the neighborhood. She set up a scholarship at her son’s high school in his name, and took part in a community event for the children of murder victims. "One day I’m going to have to sit down and realize my baby is gone," she said. "But that day hasn’t come yet."

Before the play even debuted, Grisham went to four of the pre-debut performances, and decided to bring her friends, too. "I made it a group thing for the church choir," Grisham said. "I said, ‘I’m bringing us all together and you bring your tissues.’ "

With spare staging, Luera, Cat Brooks, Ayodele Nzinga and Allysa Evans bring to life vignettes of each mother’s testimony. Actor Dawon Davis plays the silent spirit of sons forever gone. He’s there one moment, dancing and alive, then still and dead the next. In flashbacks and scenes from the mothers’ new everyday, their sons are always by their side. He’s there as his mother scolds him for not watching out, for not acting right, for not staying alive. He haunts his mom as she struggles to reach plates high up on a shelf that her son used to help her get down. And he’s there as his mother shivers in fitful sleep, then pulls her slain son’s old jacket close, inhaling what’s left of him before pulling the jacket on and hugging herself to rest at last. "They shot him. What hurts so bad is the thought of your baby laying there by himself … Did he know I loved him?"

Grisham called "Love Balm" an "excellent" work of theater. "Most people who go see it will not have lost their kids, so it’s good," she said. "It’ll open your eyes." 

For more information, visit lovebalmformyspiritchild.tumblr.com.